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The First Bite Is the Best: Thoughts on Eating

Can relishing your food help you lose weight?

A few months ago, I wrote a piece called Achievlng a Healthy Weight: A Thousand Small Decisions. In it, I described my own weight loss journey, which I began last May. The main points of my piece were simple:

  • Contrary to folk beliefs, adult weight loss is not typically caused by that '5 pounds' we put on over the holidays. Instead, adults tend to gain 1.1 pounds a year. But over a lifetime, that adds up. For today's young people, who will begin their adult lives much heavier than we did, it will move them towards obesity even faster than it did for us.
  • Healthy weight loss requires both good diet and exercise
  • People who lose weight slowly are more likely to keep it off
  • It's easier to lose weight than to keep it off (it's easier not to put it on in the first place)
  • It takes a 3,500 calorie deficit to lose a pound. That means you need to eat 3,500 calories fewer than you're burning to lose just one pound.

For someone like me who had grown up with fairly healthy eating habits, who cooks almost all their own meals, who has no major health issues, and who had access to fresh food and basic grains, the cause of weight gain was fairly straightforward.

I ate too many calories

This is not a profound statement. It is simply the truth. When I systematically logged everything I was eating, I found that I knew very little about things that were higher calories and those that were lower. Some things I thought of as 'healthy' - like good brown bread and rice - had many more calories than I thought they did. Other things, like lean meat, had fewer. When I educated myself about how many calories I was eating, it was much easier for me to make choices that brought my caloric intake in line with my calorie needs. And yes, over the last 29 weeks I have slowly lost 29 pounds. Without much fuss, without changing my eating that much, and without feeling deprived. It was boring and took time, but not 'hard'.

A commenter on my previous blog told me I must be stupid for not knowing how many calories were in what I was eating before. That may be true. But I didn't. Learning about the calories in foods and reading labels was educational and allowed me to make better choices.

Other people have other physical and psychological issues that cause them to gain weight. That wasn't my problem. I just slowly ate more calories than my body needed. And I had slowly gained weight

It's not all about calories: Glycemic index

I have also done a lot of reading about the many factors that lead to weight gain. Some of the most interesting things I have read are by Gary Taubes, a science writer for the New York Times. He has written two books: Good Calories:Bad Calories and a shorter, easier to digest book called Why We Get Fat. In them, he describes how our bodies take what we eat, break it into usable form, and metabolize the released energy. Calories, of course, are the way we measure that energy. He argues that foods that metabolize quickly cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. These foods are said to have a high glycemic index. The rapid rise in blood sugar causes a release of insulin, which keeps our blood sugar within a narrow range. Insulin sequesters excess blood sugar by storing it as fat and simultaneously suppresses the metabolizing (burning) of fat for use to meet body needs. This rapid spike in insulin has several side effects:

  • You get hungry, because your blood sugar is low and you can't immediately metabolize your stored fat because of high insulin levels
  • You temporarily get fatter, because you've stored metabolized food energy as fat in preparation for later use
  • If you eat more high glycemic index food to keep you from getting hungry, the cycle continues and you continue to store more fat than you are using up
  • If you continue this over time, you can become insulin resistant, which is a pre-diabetic condition

You can read his perspective in a number of places, including a long NYTimes feature called What If It's All A Big Fat Lie? I am a psychologist and not an expert on nutrition and will not critique it as a scientific review. I urge you to read his work yourself. The National Institute of Health supported most of its findings, although it noted that diets based on low glycemic foods were not more effective than other diets and did not follow its recommendations saying that high fat foods were the major cause of weight gain.

Taubes did say a few important, common-sense things that everyone seems to agree on:

  • High glycemic foods like soda, beer, white rice, potatoes, and heavily processed starches seem to make you fatter than slow to digest ones
  • Less processed foods that take longer to digest tend to be less associated with weight gain
  • Eating protein tends to reduce hunger

For me (personal experience), avoiding high glycemic foods tends to make me less hungry. Eating a good pancake breakfast at 8 leaves me starving at 10. Eating muesli and yoghurt or scrambled eggs leaves me full. This is consistent with what Taubes says. Different people metabolize foods differently. Your mileage may vary.

Research has clearly shown that it is easier to lose weight than to keep it off . Your body is built to keep weight on and changes physiologically to do so. Rena Wing, who works at the National Weight Control Registry says that in addition to the physiological changes, the larger problem is enviornmental: we are surrounded by food messages and opportunities to eat. “We live in an environment with food cues all the time, We’ve taught ourselves over the years that one of the ways to reward yourself is with food. It’s hard to change the environment and the behavior.” (quote from article above).

Most people go on short term diets to lose weight, but regain weight because they go back to their old habits. In addition, repeated severe calorie restriction (so called yo yo dieting) causes changes in your physiology that tends to make you hold onto calories more dearly so each time you lose weight and regain it, you need to eat less to lose it again and maintain the lower weight.

People who succeed in keeping weight off:

  • Exercise a lot - the equivalent of walking 4 miles a day 7 days a week
  • Weigh every day and keep their weight in a fairly narrow range
  • Watch less than half the television than the rest of us (I bet computer time goes with that too)
  • Eat consistently. They don't splurge on weekends or holidays
  • Don't restrict their diet: they eat dessert, enjoy their food, and haven't eliminated anything in particular. They are, however, mindful of what they eat
  • Eat a little less than most people - 50-300 calories fewer a day

What I love about watching calories

I am hoping to join those people on that National Registry - this is my goal for 2013. To join the registry, you need to have lost at least 30 pounds and keep it off at least a year. Most people on the registry have lost 70 and kept if off six years. We'll see how I do.

In the mean time, I am finding something completely unexpected in carefully monitoring what I eat. I enjoy it.

Mindfulness is a state of being present and aware of what you are doing right now in the present. When I chose what I eat, I tend to pay attention to it more. And, in truth, I love to eat.

The French say that hunger is the best sauce. They're right. When you are hungry, everything tastes better. The very first bite of food has a much stronger taste and creates a stronger sensation than the one after that. And the more you eat, the less additional pleasure you get from each bite.

There's a reason we say "Good to the last bite" as a compliment.

What I have learned becoming mindful of my food is that I enjoy food more than I did before. I have always loved to eat. Now, I enjoy it even more. And being mindful, I find I note when I stop getting pleasure from it. That makes it easier for me to stop eating. Being in the moment adds pleasure to food I love. And makes me notice when the food stops giving me pleasure and I'm just eating out of habit. Which makes it easier to just stop when I am full.

Eating less and enjoying it more? Now THAT'S a lesson learned.

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