Your mindset and mood have a lot to do with your eating habits. Here’s how to help yourself make healthier choices.
When it comes to eating for weight loss, we all know the basics: Choose mostly nutritious foods and limit indulgences.
But as most people who have tried to lose weight know, putting that into practice is a lot harder than it sounds.
“Knowing what to do isn’t usually the problem,” says Lara Fielding, Psy.D., a behavioral psychologist in Los Angeles. “It’s motivating ourselves to actually do it.”
So why is it so difficult to rally ourselves to eat well every day? The short answer: Our brains are wired to do what feels good.
The good news: We can train our brains to develop healthier eating habits.
Your Brain on Food
For optimal physical health, your body requires a good balance of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. But foods also play an important role in brain chemistry and mood regulation—and sometimes things can go awry.
For example, carbohydrate consumption causes a spike in serotonin, a chemical that improves mood and increases feelings of satiety, according to pioneering research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This effect is so powerful that the researchers reported in 1995 that “many patients learn to overeat carbohydrates—particularly snack foods, like potato chips or pastries, which are rich in carbohydrates and fats—to make themselves feel better.”
Since then, other researchers have found that a chronic high-fat diet messes with the brain’s reward system, according to a review in Frontiers in Psychology. You get a quick mood boost, followed by a crash that’s complete with depressive symptoms. In an effort to pick yourself up, you go back for seconds. Repeat.
Break the Negative Cycle
Even though your brain is hardwired to follow these destructive patterns, you can train yourself to break the cycle. Your secret weapon: mindfulness.
Using a mindful approach to eating can take your brain off autopilot, Fielding says, so you won’t find yourself accidentally downing a bag of chips or a box of cookies.
In fact, mindfulness practices may be especially beneficial for weight management, according to a 2018 review from North Carolina State University. Why? They make behavioral changes more doable.
“It’s important to realize our actions don’t happen in a vacuum,” Fielding explains. “They’re a reaction to situations, based in our feelings and emotions.”
In other words, you generally don’t overeat just for the heck of it—you do so for very specific reasons. Mindfulness allows you to spot those triggers and build healthier actions around them, Fielding says.
Want to try it? Follow these steps.
Step #1: Track Your Habits
“I’ll often have someone write down what they are doing and when they are doing it,” Fielding says. “For example, ‘When do I overeat?’ Someone might write down that it’s at night. They follow the traditional migration from television to refrigerator. That helps us establish a situational trigger.”
Step #2: Figure Out What You’re Feeling
Once you notice a pattern between situational triggers and unhealthy behaviors, ask yourself, “What thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations show up in that situation?” It could be anything from stress, boredom, exhaustion, or hunger, Fielding says.
Next, ask yourself, “If I don’t eat this cookie, how will I feel?”
Step #3: Validate Your Emotions
This part is important, Fielding says. Instead of judging yourself because you sometimes eat to soothe yourself emotionally, realize that it’s natural.
“As humans, we naturally want to do things that make us feel good, even if we know they aren’t healthy for us,” she says.
Step #4: Decide on a New Reaction
Once you determine the thoughts and feelings that drive certain behaviors, you can brainstorm new reactions that are not only healthier but also will meet your needs better, Fielding says.
For example, if overeating at night in front of the television is your situational trigger—and the emotion driving that behavior is stress from caregiving or loneliness you’ve been feeling—consider what else you can do in that situation to relieve the tension.
Can doing a few simple neck stretches help ease your anxiety? Or perhaps texting, calling, or video chatting a loved one?
Or if your trigger is a grumbling stomach, how can you change your reaction to reach past the cookies and grab a handful of almonds instead?
One practical solution: Rearrange your fridge and cabinets so quick, healthy snacks are front and center, and put treats out of sight so you won’t be tempted to choose them simply out of stress.
Need a Little More Help?
If you’re not seeing the weight loss results you want or your relationship with food causes you distress, make an appointment with your doctor.
As first priority, your doctor will want to make sure there are no underlying health issues, especially if you have a chronic condition or take any medication.
Your doctor will also want to make sure you’re getting the right nutrients to protect against brittle bones, weak muscles, and other common risks that come with age.
Finally, your emotional health and happiness matter too. Chronic stress or frequent negative feelings can harm your health.
Your doctor can help you find the right solutions, and if needed, refer you to a dietitian or other health experts.
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