3 Oct 2010

Manage your body weight - the green way - part two: how to take in fewer calories?

In a previous article: Manage your body weight - the green way I pointed out a few reasons why it's a good idea to consume fewer calories when you want to lose weight or maintain your current weight.
Not only because it will most likely help you shed those extra pounds, kilos or stones, but also because it makes sense in a wider ecological context.

It took me a while to gather the courage to write that previous article, because I know how sensitive the subject is (been there, got the T-shirt and got rid of it again. It's way too big now and I plan to never need it again). It's so easy to get demotivated rather than inspired, to feel put down rather than uplifted.
In the end, I wrote it anyway, because it's something I strongly believe in, and it represents a way of thinking that makes small and everyday actions and decisions part of a greater whole, which - to me - makes them more meaningful. Most of the time, that's worked as a huge inspiration.

The most difficult changes when you decide to manage your weight, health and everything connected, are the new mental attitudes and habits you have to develop. That and the old ones you have to get rid of. It requires being honest with yourself. No more excuses. You are not a victim, your past might have shaped you in many ways, but it does not determine all of who you are or where you're going. You are yóu, right now, and yóu shape your future by making healthy decisions, day by day.

Again, easier said than done, so let's look at a few basic principles that can help us manage.

First of all, you don't have to do this alone. Even though we might not be aware of it all the time, we all have an amazing ability to learn and adapt. Your best friends on this journey are Patience and Knowledge.

Patience because there is no quick fix for weight loss and weight management. Run from anything or anyone who claims otherwise. You don't gain pounds overnight, regardless of what the scales tell you the day after a heavy night out. (Most of that weight is water because your body is doing a good job at dealing with the food & drinks you had.) Fat accumulates gram per gram, and that's how you're going to lose it.

Knowledge is equally important. You need to become aware of what foods are bad for you, and try and see through the mounds of unreliable and false information that are out there. Learn about calories, about how certain foods (e.g. sugar, trans fats) are processed by the body and which ingredients (e.g. sugar, trans fats) to avoid. And learn to read food labels.

But the kind of knowledge that might be even more important, is knowing yourself: your strengths and your weaknesses. You can make this journey easier for yourself by finding ways that work for you.
For instance, if you know you are a social person, get your friends to help and support you, or look for people who want to do this with you. Start a club with regular activities, cook healthy meals together or for each other. Regardless of how busy you are, you can find ways to make this a co-op.
(I'm going to devote a later article to this topic: practical tips & tricks for different types of people, so stay tuned for that one.)

Here I want to focus on more general principles that can help anyone, regardless of your specific personality or preferences. These are strategies have really helped me (and many others), and even though the specifics of our minds and bodies are all different, we still operate according to the same basic principles. After all, we're all part of nature.

Here we go...

  1. Avoid sugar. It's not a coincidence that I put this on number 1. Avoid sugar in all its forms. Not just refined sugar, but also corn sugar, cane sugar, honey and all other sugar-like products that are marketed as healthier. Avoid sugary drinks as well, including unsweetened fruit juices (as they still contain a lot of fructose.)
    There are 2 big reasons for this: a) sugars make you crave more sugar, and are therefore likely to make you eat more (see below), and b) all those sugars contain a high percentage of fructose, which is now regarded by many nutritional scientists as one of the number one causes of obesity, cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. That research shows that our brain ignores fructose intake (meaning that all fructose-calories you take in don't trigger satiation), which means you'll need to eat a lot of other foods in order to feel satiated, leading to a much higher overall calorie-intake.
    It is okay to eat fruit in its pure form, with all its fiber, vitamins and minerals. But avoid fruit juices, even the unsweetened ones.
  2. Reduce highly processed and refined carbohydrates: white breads, white pasta, sugar (see above), in short: anything with a high glycemic or insulin index. Those foods break down easily during digestion, releasing glucose quickly into your blood, thus making your blood sugar levels spike first and drop later, which makes you crave more carbs. They're associated with obesity, coronary heart disease and type II diabetes.
    For most of these there are healthier alternatives, made from whole grains. 
  3. Avoid trans fats. All fats contain a lot of calories (9 kcal per gram), but they also help to make you feel satiated, and many fats are good for you. Don't worry too much about saturated fats and full-fat dairy. Lots of modern nutritional research shows that they have been incorrectly associated with cardiovascular disease. Butter, coconut oil, palm oil, etc. aren't bad for you (but: use in moderation because of the high amount of calories). (Partially) hydrogenated fats like the ones you find in margarines are the ones to avoid, as are roasted nuts and many vegetable oils when they've been heated.
  4. Avoid ready-to-eat meals and ingredients. You have no idea what's in them, and they often contain a lot of sugar, salt and additives. Instead, try to cook from fresh, and develop strategies that work for you:
    • cook larger batches and keep them in the freezer for later in the week
    • make a list of basic healthy ingredients that keep a while and make sure you have them in the pantry, cellar, fridge or freezer. Focus on items you can make a quick yet healthy meal with, in about the same time it would take you to order in.
  5. Eat 5 to 6 smaller meals a day, instead of 3 big ones. This gives a psychological bonus: it reduces the time between meals, which makes it easier to stick to smaller portions. This way you don't have to eat to "bridge the next 5 or 6 hours", and it helps to prevent the big hunger spikes right before a meal that make it harder to make healthy choices.
    Be careful though: don't use this as an excuse to eat more. Calculate the total amount of calories you need per day, and divide that by 5 or 6. It usually means that you aim for 5 to 6 smaller meals of around 300 calories each. You'll soon learn to optimize those 300 calories: eating more vegetables for instance gives you a lot more volume for those 300...
  6. If it's not good for you, don't buy it. When the cravings hit, you can't guttle what you don't have in the house. And the cravings will come: your brain will try anything to hold on to those fat reserves. Therefore: manage your environment to minimize the risk of digging in.
    Counter the cravings with positive thoughts and distractions. Focus on your quality of life by refusing to buy or eat anything that doesn't meet the high standards you choose to set for your life. Drinking water or herbal tea can help as well, as very often a craving is actually disguised thirst.
    It's important to know that your daily willpower is a finite resource, so pick your fights carefully.
  7. Don't ever go shopping on an empty stomach. It's a battle that's very hard to win: your brain will point out every food item in the entire store. You'll see, feel and smell food everywhere (a natural reaction - it's your brain's way of getting you to eat when you're hungry), and you'll almost inevitably come home with easy, ready-made food, stocked with sugar, salt and all kinds of additives that you want to avoid.
  8. Drink lots. Often when you think you're hungry, you're actually thirsty. Still water is the best, followed by herbal teas if you like the taste. Drink milk or lactose-free alternatives if you want (count the calories though if you're trying to lose weight).
    Avoid artificial sweeteners: there are so many contradictions in the research results that it's just too risky.
    Experiment, come up with your own combinations and recipes. One of my favourites is a sugar-free and low-calorie chocolate milk, with skimmed milk, pure cacao powder and sweetened with a few drops of stevia.
  9. Look for clever and healthy/healthier alternatives. Many "quick" comfort foods can be replaced by a healthier alternative. Be creative, experiment and enjoy! A few suggestions:
    • make your own sugar-free lemonade: squeeze 1 lemon or lime in a glass with an ice cube, add a few drops of stevia (a natural sweetener) and top up with sparkling water.
    • quick pizza: take a slice of (wholemeal) bread, a few tomato slices (juice and seeds removed) or a spoonful of tomato puree, some fresh or dried herbs (basil, oregano, chives, nettle, ...), salt and pepper and a slice of cheese (mozzarella or other). Add some vegetables (or leftovers) and bake in a pan, in the oven or under the grill. It's quick and delicious and you can vary according to your own taste: with spinach & feta cheese; smoked salmon, cream cheese & dill; mushrooms & blue cheese; bell peppers & feta cheese; pesto and vegetables; ... 
  10. True quality of life above everything! Don't settle for crappy food. If you want to eat a piece of chocolate, don't go for lesser quality.
    Choose quality over quantity, and you'll find that you'll often consume less.
    An example: I promised myself, when I really wanted to eat potato chips, I could, but only from the best chips place in town. I chose not to settle for anything less. An interesting side effect was that I actually craved it less because it wasn't forbidden, and that half of the time when I did want chips, that particular place was either closed, or I couldn't be bothered going over there and had something healthier instead, because that was the only stuff that was close by.
    Also: focus on what you really want. Food is often just a substitute for something else. Are you bored and inclined to nibble? Do something interesting, challenge yourself, call a friend, go for a short walk, read something, meditate, do a couple of sun salutations, go online and read an inspiring blog, or write one of your own. Choose to be honest with yourself. It's the best way to learn and change the habits that don't help you ahead.
And, very important for all of the tips above: it's okay to get it wrong sometimes. Every day offers you new chances to start over.
Continued in: Manage your body weight - the green way - part three: exercise!

Want to read more?
Here are a few interesting links where you can find more background information and/or inspiration:

Sugar: the bitter truth.- a 90 minute video: a presentation by Robert H. Lustig, professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California. Well worth the 90 minutes.
Krista's Eating section - the "eating" section of stumptuous.com, full of inspiration, recipes and tips&tricks.
Fitday - one of many sites that help you to keep track of what you're eating. The free account gives you access to a calorie calculator, a personal journal, weight & measurement tracking, and much more.
World's healthiest foods - a list of the healthiest foods, in-depth descriptions of the health benefits, related articles and recipes.
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