Breaking cycles of over-eating and restriction: 5 guidelines that will decrease guilt, increase pleasure, and declutter your relationship with food
We have to drink and eat. We have every day since we were born. Eating is a portal to health, healing and (if you need to) losing weight. Having a healthy relationship with food is key to vitality and inhabiting your body in a vibrant and healthy way.
Easy to write, but it is difficult because it seems like we are at great odds with our biology and society. Our biology is programed for cycles of feast and famine. It is in our nature to seek energy and nutrient dense food and to eat as much of it as possible. This was an AWESOME strategy for our ancestors, you exist because of this biological urge to eat. If we look at nature, you will see animals en sync with their natural biology and eating whatever they want when they want. From the finches at the feeder to the lion chasing after a ghazal, not a one is on a ‘diet.’
However, we live in a highly domesticated society and we are surrounded by food and products that masquerade as food. Our society delivers far more than we could ever consume around the clock. We can (and sometimes do) eat, eat and eat. Some say, “we eat for a famine that never comes.” Absolutely some of us do. But I don’t fully agree. From my experience, many of us perform great mental tricks to force our bodies into famine. The cycles of eating and feeling lack of control while you reach for another (and another) slice of pizza, is followed by guilt. Our mental guilt, as well as physical discomfort, may trigger restricted eating, a self-induced ‘famine.’ Post ‘over-eating’ guilt may also manifest itself in over-exercise.
From my perspective, these cycles are a way that your mind and body are attempting balance. I am NOT saying that it IS a balanced way to exist. I am saying that your body is calling out for help because it craves balance. The environment we live in is setting us up for sabotage therefore cycles that do not serve our mental or physical well being.
So, is it time to CHANGE this? YES!
Can we trust our biology while surrounded by fast-food that is available 24 hours a day? YES!
I believe that there are some fundamental shifts in the way we think about food and fueling our bodies that can free us from these cycles and create balance. It may not change overnight, but the shifts in perspective will ultimately free you from the mental angst around food choices, cycles of binging and restricting, and ultimately lead you to find balance.
Here are the 5 guidelines I recommend:
1. REAL WHOLE PLANT-BASED FOOD FIRST
What is real whole plant-based food? It is something that your great great great grandmother would have recognized as food. This includes: fresh ripe delicious fruits, fresh vibrant vegetables, raw whole (and sprouted) nuts and seeds, whole grains, and legumes. The guideline is: When you are hungry reach for real whole plant-based food first. The easiest to do? Reach for a piece of fruit! Bananas, oranges and apples are easy to take with you on the go and they are so yummy. Of course, some individuals have allergies or food intolerances and if this is you then steer clear of foods you react negatively to (such as nuts or gluten).
What about meat, dairy and eggs? I won't go into great detail here but in short, if you gave a young child a banana and a lamb, which do you think it would eat and which would it play with? The banana! If you were passing a farm and you saw an apple tree ripe with fruit and a cow with an utter full of milk, what would you opt for? Would you go suckle the cow? I doubt it. I bet you would opt for the fresh ripe juicy apple. Instinct at first may be hard to tap into in modern society overflowing with prepackaged and disguised food-like substances, which are pumped full of artificial colors and flavors to trick our biological instincts. There are a number of negative health repercussions of eating meat, eggs and dairy, and so it is certainly better for your longevity, not to mention your waistline, to stick to nutritious and delicious real whole plant-based foods.
2. REFUSE REFINED (PROCESSED)
This will help clarify the first guideline because ‘Real whole plant-based food’ is not necessarily straight-forward. The guideline is: Refuse refined sugar, flour, corn, oil, and other products that have been highly refined or processed. Refined or processed foods are those that have gone through some sort of transformation that strip away vital nutrients while concentrating others in unhealthy doses unfit (unhealthy and potentially damaging) for human consumption.
For example, corn on the cob is a delicious healthy and whole plant-based food option. However, all corn created substances such as high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch and corn oil are not. Why? Because the components in whole food have a synergistic effect. When you consume whole foods, all of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, water, carbohydrates, sugars and fats work in harmony. Our body knows how to use the fuel from the unrefined and tasty whole corn. When you feed your body intense doses of sugar (high-fructose corn syrup), starch (corn starch), or fat (corn oil) it disrupts the natural digestive and metabolic processes. Processed foods such as corn oil are trans fats are prone to oxidation and will also clog arteries, leading to heart disease and heart attack. As far as other oils, I consider them all processed. The good part of the whole food (in the case of olives, coconut, walnut or avocado) are taken away (the water based nutrients and the fiber) and you are left with high-fat, nutrient-deficient oils that are either sensitive to oxidation or high in saturated fat . They are better than vegetable oil or butter, but if you do choose to cook or create meals with oil look for cold-pressed and virgin oils and do not heat over the smoke point as that damages the delicate fat (which makes it not much better than a trans-fat).
It’s complicated when it comes to foods like ‘bread’ because while your great-grandmother would recognize 'bread' as food, the bread-products widely available today are not the same wholesome loaf. So, for bread and all other multi-ingredient foods, check your labels and skip things that have bizarre ingredients your great granny would have scratched her head over. This is going to eliminate most conventional bread, crackers, chips, and snack foods. But there are increasingly more healthful alternatives. Stick to foods with simple ingredients that come from unprocessed plant-based sources. If you are questioning if it's processed or not, just put it back on the shelf and opt for a handful of raw nuts or a fresh seasonal fruit.
3. GO FOR MICRONUTRIENT-DENSITY, NOT LOW CALORIE
I strongly suggest against counting calories. Just don’t do it. I will not go into it all here, but I will in another post. Simply put, a Calorie is the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water 1 degree Celsius. This is far too simplistic and is not how our bodies digest and use what we eat. You can take them into consideration only insofar as you want to get the most micro-nutrient dense calories possible. I call foods 'nutrient dense' when the micro-density per calorie is the highest. For example, for 100 calories snack your could eat 3 oz of white chicken (about the size of a deck of cards) without skin or 3 cups of Broccoli (A big bowl full). Besides the macronutrients of Protein and Fat (About 60%/ $40%), chicken does not have much else to offer. However, 100 calories of Broccoli offers macronutrients Protein, Fat and Carbohydrates as well micro-nutrients including vitamin K, vitamin C, chromium, and folate. It is a very good source of dietary fiber, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin E, manganese, phosphorus, choline, vitamin B1, vitamin A (in the form of carotenoids), potassium, and copper. Not to mention that Broccoli has been shown in a number of studies to prevent and even reverse a number of cancers (we will get into that later). Broccoli is going to give you a bigger nutrient bang for your buck than the chicken.
The guideline is: Choose real whole plant-based foods are nutrient dense. When choosing between food options, ask yourself, "what choices are going to feed me the biggest amount of nutrients per bite?" Some of the most nutrient-dense foods include: richly colored berries, brightly colorful fruit, dark green leafy veggies, broccoli, red cabbage and other red and purple veggies, carrots and sweet potatoes, sprouted nuts, seeds and legumes, richly colored berries, brightly colorful fruit, and dark chocolate. Yum! Trust me there are some great dishes you can make with all of these nutrient dense delights.
4. TRUST YOUR GUT
Once you choose real whole food plant-based food first, refuse refined, and dig into micro-dense foods this whole ‘trusting your gut’ (and your tastebuds) becomes easier. Why is this? Because when you don’t overwhelm your palate with the processed stuff, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, trans-fats, and other empty calorie franken-food-like substances, then you can eat heartily and trust that your body will use that food for the processes of life and that your metabolism will balance out over or under consumption of energy (Calories). This means diving into plates full of vegetables and bowlfuls of delicious fruit. YUM!
This is really important. No, really important. When we don’t enjoy our food it sets off a stress responses, activating the sympathetic nervous system in the body, which decreases digestive capacity, nutrient absorption, and can lead to weight gain. In order to reap all the benefits what we put in our mouths, we must: slowdown, not be afraid or anxious about what we are eating, taste each delicious bite, and enjoy!
You can trust your biology once you understand that the reason behind cycles of overeating and restriction is a call for balance, and that if you 1. choose real whole plant-based food first, 2. refuse refined, and 3. eat micro-dense deliciousness then you can 4. trust your gut and 5. enjoy!
I hope this was helpful. Please let me know how you are finding balance by commenting below and how these guidelines shape your nutrition choices.
Note from Sage: This article is not meant to diagnose or cure any diagnosed eating disorder. If you feel that you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder please seek professional help. You can find resources here: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders/index.shtml