We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017).
Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.
In this article, we’re exploring how the relationship of thoughts, feelings, and behavior affect our eating and exercise habits. Thinking takes center stage.
Before we get started let’s clarify a few concepts and terms. Each of us has thoughts we can’t entirely control. Sometimes we know certain thoughts are ridiculous and we can easily dismiss them and ask ourselves, “Where did that come from?” We won’t be scrutinizing those thoughts. Instead, I want to focus on thoughts that matter — the ones that influence behavior and shape our attitudes and beliefs.
Beliefs are simply thoughts we accept as true. If your mind was a garden, thoughts would be seeds that quickly developed into seedlings. Beliefs and attitudes are the mature plants. Therefore, thoughts are full of potential to help us and provide a sense of well-being. Too often, however, they derail us — and that’s where this chapter can help. Let’s look at three clients whose thinking directly affected their attempts at weight loss:
- John needed to make changes in his diet before being approved for bariatric surgery. As I explained the MyPlate principles of healthy eating, John snapped back at me, “I’m not doing that. Nobody eats that way!”
- A client named Karmen told me her personal trainer said she was obese because she’d ruined her metabolism. According to him, regular, intense workouts were the only way to solve her weight problem.
- Becky’s mother always told her she’d never find a good man if she was overweight. Now 32 years old, 75 pounds overweight, and still single — Becky felt unlovable.
Can you see how John, Karmen, and Becky handicapped their weight management efforts before they even started? John’s belief that only freaks would eat a balanced diet was like putting up a huge DETOUR sign on the road to weight loss. Karmen was overwhelmed by thinking her metabolism was forever ruined, and only a lifelong extreme exercise program would treat her condition. She was bound to give up. Becky’s mother primed her to feel lonely and hopeless in pursuit of a relationship. She quickly dismissed any man who showed interest in her, yet paid close attention if anyone seemed put off by her weight. Eating would become her friend, her solace.
These three examples above show how thinking can have a clear, direct relationship to weight. However, sometimes the beliefs that affect eating and physical activity are more subtle and indirect:
- At work, Steve’s philosophy was, “If I don’t do this, it won’t get done.” At the same time, he had high standards for work and wouldn’t delegate tasks to others. This led to 14-hour days with no time for exercise. Being strapped for time and chronically sleep deprived, he often ordered carry-out and drank caffeinated sugar- sweetened beverages all day long.
- For years Sarah tried not to even think about her family, but she couldn’t get them out of her mind. Her alcoholic father’s relapse made her both angry and sad. Her sister’s lifestyle choices led to financial problems, and Sarah felt obligated to help. Sarah seemed to always feel upset, and to keep those emotions under control she distracted herself in some way — often by eating something she knew she shouldn’t.
- Lisa often thought about how terrible it would be if she disappointed her boss, her husband, or her kids. She believed she needed to be everything for everyone, and this led to anxiety she couldn’t control. She felt anxious much of the time and eating became her Xanax.
The First Steps Toward Change
The first step toward thinking differently is to recognize beliefs and feelings behind the behavior we want to change. Examining situations and their outcome helps pinpoint our problematic behavior. For example, let’s consider Lisa from the last paragraph and imagine how she might respond to the following scenario:
Lisa’s boss asks for a volunteer to lead a fundraising project (situation). Lisa thinks, “My boss will be disappointed in me if I don’t do it,” (thought) and despite her already overcommitted schedule, she feels pressure (emotion/feeling) to take on the task. For Lisa, this becomes a question of which option is most unpleasant: the anxiety of not volunteering versus the anxiety and stress of accepting extra work she doesn’t want. Either way, she feels stressed because her thinking has created a lose-lose situation.
Lisa could think differently: “I’m not sure what my boss expects, but even if he does want me to do this (and I have no evidence that he does), it’s unreasonable for me to be everything for everybody. Other people in the office can benefit from taking a turn. The people who truly care about me will still feel that way even if I don’t always do exactly what they want.” She could also talk to her boss in private about his expectations. Thinking differently helps Lisa feel less anxious about her situation. Her new thinking may feel awkward at first but allows her to make the brave choice of saying “no” to more responsibility.
We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017). See all of David Creel’s articles here.
Although people who lose weight in a healthy way and keep it off don’t eat exactly the same way, we know that eating within a certain framework will promote health and increase your likelihood of success. The following recommendations are consistent with The Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans. You can safely follow these guidelines to lose weight and keep it off in a healthy manner. Of course, if you have a medical condition that requires a special diet, you should consult a registered dietitian.
1. Eat Foods from Each Food Group
Over the past 60 years The United States Department of Agriculture has promoted healthy eating through The Basic Four Food Groups, The Food Guide Pyramid, MyPyramid and MyPlate. Even though the recommendations change slightly over time, research continues to support the importance of eating a variety of foods from different food groups. In order to avoid malnutrition, people either have to eat this way or take supplements. Although supplements can play a role in our health, especially for people who have malabsorption issues, food allergies, or intolerances, relying on supplements for health and nutrition isn’t ideal.
Scientists are still discovering compounds in foods that may help prevent diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Since we still don’t know how all of this works, we can’t simply pull out all the beneficial compounds in foods and put them into a pill. For instance, fruits and vegetables contain many phytochemicals (plant chemicals) that play a role in preventing cell damage or assist in health-promoting enzymatic reactions. A typical multivitamin doesn’t contain these phytochemicals. Frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, and a handful of supplements are not equal to a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, lean protein sources, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. When we eat selections from all the food groups we naturally maintain a reasonable balance between protein, carbohydrate and fat, and we’re likely to consume adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. People who undergo bariatric surgery are an exception and require vitamin/mineral supplementation.
2. Eat Different Kinds of Vegetables, and Lots of Them
Eating a variety of vegetables is not only good for you; it also makes weight management easier. Vegetables, especially the non-starchy ones, are mostly water. Chewing these water-filled nutrition giants will help you feel satisfied on fewer calories. Suppose you’re having a turkey sandwich for lunch and decided to have a two-ounce bag of potato chips along with it. The chips contain about 300 calories and 20 grams of fat. If instead you chose to eat raw cauliflower, you could eat two small heads, or about 100 florets, for 300 calories. Of course you’d end up eating much less than that, and therefore consume fewer calories.
3. Ditch the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
This is easier said than done for many people. I’m not generally one to promote absolutes when it comes to diet. In fact, I often try to help patients eat problem foods in moderation rather than avoid them altogether. But for the person who drinks multiple regular sodas every day and describes it as an addiction, abstinence is probably the best goal. Why the different approaches with food versus drinks? The healthfulness and allure of most sugar-containing foods vary a great deal. For instance, if someone tells me he’s “addicted to sweets,” I don’t really know what that means. Anything with sugar, like canned corn and pickled beets? Is a graham cracker a sweet, or how about a macaroon? You get the point. With drinks, the categories are easier. Either it’s a regular soda or it’s not.
People who regularly drink sugar-sweetened beverages often follow patterns like people with addictions, such as smoking. A smoker may always smoke at certain times of day, and soda drinkers often have similar patterns they find hard to break. Studies suggest that regularly consuming sugar-sweetened beverages probably doesn’t impact everyone’s weight in the same way. The people most likely to gain weight are those with a genetic predisposition for obesity. If you have certain obesity promoting genes (many different genes influence body weight), it’s a bad idea to regularly drink sugary beverages. You’re like a person with a genetic tendency for asthma who lives in a polluted city. Just as it may be best for that person to find a better place to live, you may want to consider avoiding sugar-sweetened drinks. Although water is probably the best replacement, drinking liquids with artificial sweeteners will greatly reduce calories and can help you lose weight.
4. Eat Your Fruit, Don’t Drink It
Fruit is also relatively low in calories and packed with nutrients. Many well-intentioned people drink fruit juice rather than other sugar-sweetened beverages in an attempt to be healthier. Although fruit juice is more nutritious than soda, the calories are about the same. In addition, research is clear that chewing food makes us feel more satiated than drinking those same calories. Let’s say you typically feel satisfied after eating a breakfast including two eggs, two slices of toast, and a twelve-ounce glass of orange juice. If you substituted water for orange juice and ate a clementine instead, you could save calories. In fact, you would need to eat five clementines to equal the calories in twelve ounces of orange juice.
Next week, I’ll share a few more tips to help you devise a healthy eating plan.
Come back each week for more healthy weight loss advice from Dr. David Creel.