My thoughts on dieting

Spring is here and everyone is wanting to fit into their bikinis by summer. After the holidays and a winter of hibernation, it’s easy to put on a few pounds. Then the snow melts, the flowers start to bloom and the panic sets in. “I need to lose 15 pounds by summer!” The quickest solution is often looked for- the latest diet fads are sought out and the fasting begins. Juicing, low carb, high protein, the latest Dr. Oz recommendation…but do they actually work? Of course they work! Anything that results in a dramatic decrease in caloric intake will result in weight loss. Will the weight stay off? Probably not. Can you maintain this diet for the rest of your life? I’m guessing no. The diet ends and you are hungry. REALLY hungry. So you eat all your favorite foods that you gave up for the past couple months. And the weight comes back, typically bringing more weight on along with it. After that the guilt and frustration set in the emotional eating starts which results in the number on the scale creeping up more and more. Finally you decide you’ve had enough and try another diet. The cycle continues.

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Extreme dieting almost never works long term. I’ve seen success in those who track calories and exercise, but that can lead to obsession with counting calories which can sometimes result in losing the ability to eat intuitively. Understanding the difference between high calorie food- especially those high in empty calories (soda, sweets, etc) and nutrient dense foods (“real food” high in nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and minerals) is important to making healthy choices. As a registered dietitian, I teach people what this means and how to differentiate between the two. Once this concept is understood it’s important to find balance in your diet and high quality nutrient dense foods should make up 80% or more of what you eat. However, to be successful in stopping the diet cycle you need to dissociate yourself from any guilt you may feel when eating foods that aren’t in this category.

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I recommend to focus first on shifting the focus away from losing weight to taking care of yourself. The scale doesn’t define your self worth and much of the time this is what lead to the guilt associated with eating. I suggest to focus on the following to get your body and mind in a healthy state. Practicing these will result in life-long health and satisfaction, while dieting will only lead to short-term results.

  1. Get hydrated. Not with soda (even diet soda), juice or coffee but with water. Our bodies often mistake hunger for thirst.
  2. Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with balanced portions of high quality carbohydrate, protein and fat at each meal.
  3. Listen to your body and don’t eat if you’re not hungry. However, make sure you don’t skip meals (even if you’re not particularly hungry at one meal- just eat light at that meal). Skipping meals will set you up for overeating later, and most likely the foods you are going to seek are nutrient-lacking foods
  4. Make time for exercise. This should be a priority. Exercise not only keeps our bodies functioning well but can also help to diminish food cravings. Movement releases brain reward chemicals (endorphins) that improve mood and help you sleep better.
  5. Go to bed! Being overtired leads to overeating and we are most likely to reach for sugary junk food to increase energy levels quickly
  6. Don’t aim for perfection. More than likely you will never eat perfectly. If you have an off-day or week (holidays, vacations are common culprits) learn from it and move on. The strive to eat perfectly will either lead to an eating disorder or frustration that fuels mindless eating.

On a side note, I was very happy with the results of the marathon I ran a few weeks ago. My finish time was 3:16:50 which was over a 3 minute PR for me! I finished 4th overall female and 1st in my age division. Next up is the Indianapolis mini marathon in May (this will by my 5th time running) and the Columbus Mill Race marathon in September. I have a lot of family in Columbus so I am really looking forward to that one!

 

 

 

Am I really addicted to sugar?

“I’m addicted to chocolate.” I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this statement during one of my counseling sessions. It’s something that’s easy to joke about, but I have seen those who seriously struggle with cravings for sweets that are so intense they will do anything possible to get their hands on chocolate, ice-cream, cookies…anything to get their fix. Is sugar addiction real? Is it something that can be treated? Or is it just a matter of having good willpower? 

Now that she's discovered sugar, she can smell it from a mile away

Now that she’s discovered sugar, she can smell it from a mile away

There are physiological and environmental factors that influence our drive to eat. This starts with metabolic sensors in our body that are controlled by internal fat stores, blood glucose levels, nerves in our gut and hunger/satiety hormones. Physiologically, food intake is also influenced by the pleasure we get from eating. There is a pleasure-reward circuitry in our brain and when we eat something that is highly palatable (such as a food high in sugar) this causes the release of opiods (“bliss chemicals”- includes endorphins) that make us feel good. Sometimes even the anticipation of food can release these chemicals and give us pleasure! Ever been to a Christmas party and see the arrangements of sweets on the table and feel the need to eat one as soon as possible? Just the external stimuli of highly palatable foods can cause the release of dopamine (another one of those bliss chemicals that when activated can stimulate the pleasure “hot spot” of the brain, which just magnifies the pleasure we feel during activities like eating, sex and nurturing) in such a small amount that it teases us into wanting the full effect. Studies have actually shown that continuous consumption of foods that are high in sugar can stimulate the drive to eat more even when there is no physiological need for food. Overconsumption of these foods can lead to a greater release in dopamine (which results in greater pleasure). There is actually a “dulling” effect of the reward system in our brain when we overeat these highly sugary foods which results in a need for eating even more of these foods to bring dopamine signaling back up to pleasurable levels. This can lead to a vicious cycle that results in the need to eat more and more sweets to get the feeling of gratification, leading to addiction to that particular food (or anything in general that is high in sugar).

Amazingly, sugar addiction is caused by activation of the same regions of the brain that are activated in response to drugs that are highly abused. There is evidence to show that repeated exposure to large amounts of foods high in sugar can alter the brain similar to the way drugs do to promote constant consumption and loss of control. The excess consumption of these foods also downregulate pathways (as mentioned before), so continued intake becomes necessary to relieve stress or seek comfort. It becomes much like drug usage, continued intake is needed to prevent withdrawals.

So what makes a food have addictive qualities? It’s highly processed foods that are made by science (typically accompanied by chemical additives and flavor enhancers) not products of nature (fruits and vegetables, grains that are not processed) that trigger the release of dopamine and opiods into our system, similar to the way that recreational drugs do. Foods especially high in sugar can be highly addictive because of their rapid absorption into the bloodstream, causing a spike in blood sugar resulting in a spike of dopamine, followed by a crash of the two resulting in hunger and the need for more sugar to get that “sugar high” again. High fructose corn syrup (added to sugary items such as soda) can make food even more addictive because fructose is associated with reduced levels of appetite suppressing hormones. Fructose consumption can actually increase food intake by promoting sensations to increase hunger despite metabolic needs. Finally, artificial sweeteners such as splenda can increase our addiction to sugar. Usage of these confuse the brain- it thinks we are getting something sweet but we are really not getting any calories from consuming them. This leads us to being unable to read our internal hunger signals which can disrupt our ability to eat intuitively. The intense sweetness of these sweeteners also increases our sweet threshold which can result in increasing our preference for sweet flavors.

While highly processed and sugary foods have addictive qualities, foods naturally high in sugar do not. I’ve heard so many people say they don’t eat fruit because their diet won’t allow it, it’s too high in sugar, they’re avoiding carbs….the list goes on. Fruit does have fructose but the quantity is substantially less than that found in processed foods. Fruit also raises blood glucose levels, but at a much slower rate than processed foods high in added sugar, which results in a much slower release of dopamine. Fruit also is high in fiber and phytochemicals (health benefiting nutrients), something that highly processed foods with added sugar do not have.

So how can you conquer or prevent sugar addiction? There are stages as outlined by the Food Addiction Institute:

1). Stop getting high on trigger foods- any of these are false fixes that lead to a short-term reward.

2). Choose healthy fixes- These include physical activity, nourishing food choices, and positive interactions. Eating more of these “whole food choices” help to recalibrate brain chemistry. Good choices include lean protein to promote satiety, healthy fats (especially foods high in omega 3 fatty acids) and carbohydrates that are not processed but high in fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans). All of these positive fixes can boost dopamine response.

3) Expect withdrawals- Know that it may take 2-5 days for cravings to subside. It’s important to have a good support system during this time

4) Know that your taste buds CAN change- but gradually- it can take 8-12 weeks for recalibration to occur. Be patient and stick with it. Eventually you can train your brain to appreciate and enjoy the taste of healthful foods.


I promise you can love veggies just as much as I do!

I promise you can love veggies just as much as I do!

5) Learn how to deal with emotions and stress in ways other than eating. Exercise, prayer and a strong support group are all good outlets.

6) Make realistic long-term goals to work toward, and set short term goals to get there.

7) Do NOT diet!!!! I cannot stress this enough. Diets don’t work and mess with our ability to eat intuitively. Dieting induces neuroadaptations in the reward circuitries of the brain that were designed to favor survival in times of food scarcity. This can result in behaviors that lead to binging, obsession with food, and the increased desire for highly palatable foods. This is why I always recommend staying away from dieting and focusing on developing a healthy relationship with food and peace with your body.