As a primary care physician striving to help people with the prevention of chronic illness, I have encouraged patients to “lose weight and exercise” countless times. As a patient, you may have heard this countless times. Almost universally patients are receptive to the idea of weight loss, but unfortunately, they almost universally return to the office the same weight despite attempts at diet changes (I’ll leave exercise to another blog post, but let me say weight loss without exercise is very difficult). We have all heard the recommendations before: decrease portions, cut out indulgent desserts, quit drinking soda, eat more vegetables, don’t go to the all-you-can-eat-buffet at Golden Corral, and the list goes on.
In my experience, diet change really is more complicated than just cutting out a single item or indulgence. True dietary change, to consistently achieve weight loss, requires one to dramatically step out of their culinary comfort zone and rethink how, what, and why they eat. And, surprise, we can’t achieve that all in one blog post. However, the following 5 steps over 5 days are a great start to a personal plan for a diet change. Try a different step each day and make this next week one your body will remember.
1. What are you doing after dinner?
Think about how your food makes you feel. Seriously, do you feel good after a burger and fries or your favorite fried fish sandwich? Yes, you may feel full, but do you feel GOOD, energized, lighter in your step? Or, do you want to just take a nap? Are you thirsty from that salt load you just ingested? Do you have heartburn? Do you feel guilty about what you just ate? If you don’t feel good on a physical or emotional level after your meal, then you probably shouldn’t have eaten it. What’s more, feeling bad after your meal should be a very, very strong negative motivator to not eat it again. If you crave what eats you, then step back before you eat and think about more than just satiating your hunger, but let how you will feel after your meal be the guide.
2. What’s in a name?
Are you eating food or are you eating a product? If you don’t know what the ingredients are in the food you eat, let alone pronounce them, then don’t eat it. Quit eating food out of boxes. Processed foods are laced with added sugar and fat, and it is very hard to grasp how much of either you are eating if you are not adding them to your food yourself. According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day, about 350 extra calories daily. Not to endorse a grocery by the same name, but eating foods that are simple and unenhanced, or more simply put, whole foods, can dramatically alter your caloric intake and put you in control of what you put into your body.n
3. What goes in must come out.
Your bowels can tell you a great deal about the foods you eat and how nice they play with your body. A balanced diet high in fiber, unlikely to be found in prepared and boxed foods, should yield regular, easy bowels movements. If your food constipates you, gives you diarrhea, or otherwise yields an unpleasant next day experience, then a change is in order. You may consider adding a daily natural fiber supplement just to ensure you have regular bowels and as a little insurance policy in case you don’t meet your fiber goal on a given day. Either way, pay attention tomorrow to what you eat today.
4. Experience a different hunger.
Take to heart days 1-3 and throw in some aggressive exercise. You may experience hunger that will drive you to physically move anyone standing between you and your next meal. This is more than the “yeah, I could eat” kind of hunger. Discover the feeling of true hunger after your body burns through the calories you have taken in today. You will realize that, on less active days, you don’t need to eat as much because you aren’t experiencing true hunger. As you get savvier and recognizing the nuanced feelings of hunger your body produces, you can tailor your portions to your level of hunger.
5. A meal that keeps on giving.
After learning how to feel truly hungry, now you must learn how to feel truly full and stay that way longer than you thought possible. Eating simple, whole foods will keep you full longer, especially if you focus on keeping your carbs complex. Avoid simple sugars, white bread and pasta, bleached white flour (often found in those boxed foods) and for heaven’s sake, those fast food buns! Substitute in whole/multi-grain bread, high fiber cereals, and hearty doses of beans. Get adventurous in the bulk grains aisle of your local grocery and explore new sources of healthy carbs such as quinoa, wheatberry, chia seed, brown rice, and others. These more complex carbohydrates will keep you more full for longer. In addition, as your body processes these carbohydrates more slowly, your blood sugar will rise more slowly and less dramatically. Your mid-morning or late-night snack just may be a thing of the past.
Your 5 days to creating a healthier diet are done, and it is now the weekend. Get out, get active, and enjoy feeling energized and proud of feeding yourself instead of getting fed. Keep up the good work and on Monday, simply repeat.
John D. Kolter, M.D. Internal Medicine