When I was in the military, we meticulously and methodically drilled and trained in order to ingrain habits into how we would fight to win battles. Our training was designed to place us into auto-pilot when bad situations might arise. Even in the fight for your life, those ingrained habits would kick in automatically, without thought, in order to get you through a tough fight. Simply through the development of safe habits, there was no need for deep thought to know not to place your finger on the trigger of your weapon until ready to fire. The act of switching the fire selector back to “Safe” after firing just became an automatic step through muscle memory instilled into habit through constant training. A pilot in combat, or any type emergency, does not get bogged down with decision making, they automatically know which switches to flip, because their training has instilled the actions deep into their mind.
What does all this have to do with weight loss and management?
We humans are creatures of habit. We may not always be cognizant of our personal habits, but good or bad, we still have them. Our habits can help us, or they can hurt us, they can destroy our health over a course of time. The habit of smoking is obvious of course, but just as damaging is our habit of eating calorie dense, nutritionally poor foods. When we are happy, we are in the habit of celebrating with food. When we are sad, we are in the habit of eating away our sorrow. When we are stressed, the dump of endorphins such as serotonin and dopamine from some foods make us feel better in the moment, therefore it is easy to become habituated to eating poor foods when we are having a bad day. Your body releases dopamine and serotonin to accompany the sugar rush that comes from simple carbohydrates, which is why, at first, you’ll feel happier, and perhaps even calmer. However, these receptor sites slow production to regulate the same endorphins that had you feeling so good. This causes a crash in mood and even depression, thus a vicious cycle begins and we reach for more sugar.
According to research from Princeton University, “food addiction” evolves as a result of changes in brain pathways. Therefore, we must be mindful of what we consume each day. Sugar causes the release of the hormone dopamine in the brain, which is no different than the response activated by addictive drugs. These chemical adaptations cause changes in dopamine release over time. In this study, rats actually became sugar-dependent, which lead to the theory that sugar can be physiologically addictive. The study displayed that the rats experienced withdrawal similar to drug withdrawals through low levels of dopamine and anxiety. Given this, it’s not hard to believe that in brain scans, sugar appears to be as addictive as cocaine.
The importance of adopting healthy habits.
As a society, we have sadly made food a habit that is driving our obesity epidemic. We make poor nutritional food choices and then eat these foods for every occasion as a habit. Often, we do not even need any specific occasion to eat poorly, we will simply do it because we are more bored than we are hungry.
It’s not just willpower, or a lack thereof, that makes us overeat and gain weight. It’s often because of that sneaky bad habit you developed such as running out the door some mornings without breakfast, or mindlessly munching chips in front of your television. The next thing you know, one little bad habit can equal a lot of body fat gained.
When you are having a bad day, are you prone to opening the refrigerator and eating? You know it is not a good diet strategy to put food in your mouth as a coping mechanism. A number of studies confirm that emotions, both positive and negative, can cause people to eat more than they should, an easy weight-loss stumbling block.
The obvious solution is to drop the habit of eating bad foods for coping or celebrations, yet just dropping the habit is not enough. You must also begin working at instilling healthy habits to replace the unhealthy. When you just quit a habit, it leaves a void that must be filled. When you do not fill that void with a healthy alternative, you will find that vacuum will be once again filled the first time you encounter any of life’s adversities. If you have not developed new healthy habits, the first thing you are prone to do is to return to what is familiar to you, unhealthy eating. We see this often, someone might be having a great year and then maybe a tragedy happens. Just like ex-smokers can be quick to pick up a cigarette, food junkies are quick to reach for junk foods for an emotional lift.
What you can do.
1. Recognize patterns for food cravings: Your cravings often develop when your desire to eat a certain food is paired with a stimulus such as watching a favorite TV show, or feeling sad or lonely. When you stick to a healthy dietary plan, it can help to reduce the temptation to seek out tempting foods you are trying to avoid, so your cravings really do decrease, or may completely disappear. In fact, when you restrict your calories overall, especially when you eliminate sugar and white flour-based products, food cravings can greatly decline or even disappear altogether.
2. Remove any temptations. If you cannot stop at one….don’t tease yourself. It’s simply better to avoid bringing these foods—cookies, chips, crackers—into the house. If you walk by a vending machine at work, and are drawn to a candy bar or those cheese crackers, change your route if you can. Then, move on to other processed, prepared foods. Swap out the Danish or donut for eggs or oatmeal. The less sugar you have, the less you are likely to crave the foods high in it.
3. Plan Meals with Protein. The fix for hunger cravings is to plan your meals around protein and vegetables to fortify your metabolism. By doing this, your appetite will remain steady and you’ll feel satisfied from one meal to the next. Those ravenous cravings will no longer strike. The goal is to make sure your meals include chicken, fish, or beans at lunch and dinner along with a hearty salad and/or a big serving of vegetables to fill you up and keep your blood sugar even and your nutritional needs met.
4. Dump sugar and be prepared for the moment that hunger strikes:
- Always have a piece of fruit and some nuts on hand.
- Pack some hummus and carrots, red pepper, or celery, for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up.
- Keep a tin of roasted almonds in your desk drawer at the office
- Have a bag of peanuts and dried mango in the car, and in your handbag or backpack.
- Keeping a low sugar, protein bar at the ready so if you miss a meal, you can keep your blood sugar even, and avoid being blindsided with an insatiable hunger.
5. Work towards a healthy weight through good nutrition. When you are committed to managing your weight through high protein, low carb nutrition with zero sugar or processed foods. you will have fewer food cravings. When you are feeding your body the foods that it needs to function well, you will remain satiated far longer than when you eat foods full of sugar or simple carbs coupled with unhealthy fats and high amounts of sodium and preservatives..