Health

Diets make you feel bad. Try training your brain instead

That may seem like surprising advice,
but there’s mounting scientific evidence to suggest that diets don’t work.
Research shows that food restriction just makes you want to eat more. And over
the long term, dieting can backfire, triggering your body’s survival defences,
slowing your metabolism and making it even harder to lose weight in the future.

A resolution to quit dieting doesn’t
mean giving up on having a healthier body. But to successfully conquer a
dieting habit, you’ll need to let go of old ideas about counting calories,
banning your favourite foods and measuring success by a number on a scale.

So what’s the alternative? Many weight
researchers are encouraging a new approach to healthy eating based on brain
science. A variety of techniques that encourage mindful awareness of how we
eat, acceptance related to the foods we want to eat and intuitive eating
exercises can be used to quell cravings and reshape our eating habits.

“The paradigms around willpower don’t
work,” said Dr Judson Brewer, an associate professor in behavioural and social
sciences at the Brown University School of Public Health who has studied
mindful eating practices. “You have to start by knowing how your mind works.”

The case against restrictive diets

Kicking dieting habits this time of year
is especially hard because of the allure of gimmicky weight-loss plans. Many
established diet programs and dieting apps try to attract users with the
promise that they’re not promoting a traditional diet, only to impose
restrictive eating practices once you sign up.

Traci Mann, who heads the health and
eating laboratory at the University of Minnesota, notes that beyond the
disappointment of not keeping weight off, dieting also impacts your body in a
number of negative ways. Among other things, restrictive eating can impact
memory and executive function, lead to obsessive food thoughts, and trigger a
surge in cortisol, a stress hormone.

“A diet is an unpleasant and short-lived
way to try to lose weight,” said Mann, author of “Secrets From the Eating Lab:
The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never
Diet Again.” “You might take it off in the short term, but it comes back. It
happens no matter who you are; it happens to people with great willpower and to
people with crappy willpower.”

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If you’re still tempted to try that fad
diet, consider this: Evidence suggests that restrictive dieting and rapid
weight loss can lead to lasting changes that may slow your metabolism, alter
hormones that regulate hunger and hamper efforts to maintain your weight. A
weight-reduced body responds differently to food and exercise than a body that
has not dieted, studies suggest, and a dieter’s muscles may burn fewer calories
than expected during exercise. These changes help explain why many chronic
dieters may be eating far fewer calories than those around them but still
aren’t losing weight, said Dr Rudolph Leibel, a professor of medicine at
Columbia University’s Institute of Human Nutrition.

How eating habits are formed

Brewer, an addiction psychiatrist, has
tested a number of mindfulness practices to help people quit smoking, lower
anxiety and reduce emotional eating. He has also created an app called Eat
Right Now that uses mindfulness exercises to help people change their eating
habits.

One Brown University study of 104
overweight women found that mindfulness training reduced craving-related eating
by 40%. Another review by scientists at Columbia University found that
intuitive and mindful-eating training often resulted in at least one benefit
for metabolic or heart health, such as improved glucose levels, lower
cholesterol or improved blood pressure

Brewer notes that eating behaviours,
such as absent-mindedly snacking on potato chips or bingeing on dessert, are
often the result of habit loops that get reinforced over time.

Habit loops can be formed from both good
and bad experiences, says Brewer. Ice cream, for instance, is something we
might eat during celebrations. The brain learns to associate eating ice cream
with feeling good. Although there’s nothing wrong with ice cream, it can become
a problem when we start eating it unthinkingly after an emotional trigger, such
as when we feel stressed or angry. Now our brains have learned that ice cream
also makes us feel good in times of stress, reinforcing the habit loop.

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Over time, we can develop a number of
habit loops that trigger us to eat when we’re bored, angry, stressed, tired
after work or even just watching television. “What’s tricky about habit loops,”
Brewer said, “is that the more automatic they become, over time you’re not even
consciously choosing these actions.”

By understanding your own habit loops
and the triggers behind them, Brewer said, you can help break the hold they
have on you by updating your brain with new information. Mindfulness exercises,
which prompt you to slow down and think about how and why you’re eating, can
teach your brain that a “feel good” food doesn’t actually make you feel as good
as you remembered. Practicing mindfulness each time you reach for a food or
decide to eat it can interrupt the habit loop.

Try the Eat Well Challenge

For this week’s Eat Well Challenge,
start practicing awareness by slowing down and thinking about what you’re
eating and why you’re eating it. Try not to focus on weight loss, food
restriction or eliminating favourite foods from your diet. Avoid labelling
foods as “good” or “bad.” Your goal this week is to focus on the tastes and
textures of food, and how you feel before, during and after eating.

It can take time to learn how to bring
mindful awareness to what you’re eating, so be patient. In one study, it took
participants at least 10 to 15 tries — and for many people it took 38 or more
attempts — to begin to reshape eating behaviours. (I will be offering extra
tips and coaching via text message during the challenge this month. Text the
word “Hi” (or any word) to 917-810-3302 for a link to join. Message and data
rates may apply.)

Here are two simple exercises from
Brewer’s Eat Right Now program to get you started.

Begin with a premeal warmup.

Before every meal this week, try this
simple awareness exercise. There’s no need to track what you eat or restrict
your diet. Just check in with your body every time you eat. On a scale of zero
to 10, with zero being an empty stomach and 10 being uncomfortably full, how
hungry are you right now? Next, look at the food, observing the textures and colours.
Now smell your food. Finally, pick up your fork and take your first mindful
bite. As you chew, put your fork down and pay careful attention to how the food
tastes and feels in your mouth. After several bites, check in with your body to
see if you’re hungry or full.

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Map your eating habits.

Use this exercise to work on an eating behaviour
you’d like to change, such as excessive snacking or ordering fast food. Our
eating habits have three elements: a trigger, a behaviour and a result. By
mapping your habits, you can provide your brain with new information about how
the habit really makes you feel.

Start by choosing one eating behaviour
you’d like to change.
Maybe you want to snack less during the day, or cut
back on takeout or indulgences such as cookies, potato chips or ice cream.
Although there’s nothing wrong with enjoying these foods, you’ve identified
this as a problematic eating behaviour. Why is that?

Now think about what triggers this behaviour.
Is it an emotion, such as anger or stress, or are you rewarding yourself with a
treat? Or it could be a situation, such as watching television or grocery
shopping when you’re hungry.

Focus on the result. Before you
eat, ask yourself some questions. What am I getting from this? How will eating
this food make me feel? Think about how you felt the last time you ate it. Did
you enjoy it? Did you end up eating too much? Did you feel uncomfortably full
or nauseous? Did you feel guilty later and beat yourself up for eating it?
Thinking about how a food makes you feel before, during and after you eat
updates the information your brain has about how rewarding (or not) a food
really is. And it can help break the hold a particular food has on you.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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