This is the time of year when temptation to over-eat is all around us, and a New Year resolve to lose weight often follows the excesses of Christmas. Unfortunately, we are living in an age in which unnatural thinness is considered the ideal, and as a consequence most normal-sized people feel dissatisfied with their weight. There are strong commercial reasons for this. Advertisers cunningly set-out to engender dissatisfaction with our appearance. The diet industry becomes even more lucrative if advertisements for cosmetics, clothes, confectionery and other temptations combine to reinforce our feelings of inadequacy, whilst tempting us with the wrong foods.
It is inevitable that the New Year will begin with guilt-ridden self loathing for many. The success rate of weight loss diets is only 9%, and yet the misconception that deprivation of food will result in successful weight loss is deeply entrenched in our society. The human body has many compensatory mechanisms for times when food is scarce, but has never been programmed to cope with bountiful supplies of food. Eating less stimulates ‘survival mode’ whereby the metabolic rate is slowed and the body tries to lay down excess fat to ward off future starvation. You can lose weight in the short-term by doing this, but as soon as you revert back to a normal diet, weight gain is inevitable. The body stores fat in case another famine should come along!
If your meal provides the right balance of protein, fats and carbohydrates you will feel satisfied. Today, through a combination of ignorance, misconceptions and the eating of processed foods, most of our meals do not provide this balance and we are left craving. Craving is not about will-power. Craving is the body’s way of telling you that you haven’t fulfilled its nutrient requirements. People with eating disorders believe that they have an unhealthy obsession with food. However, once you provide a nutritionally rich diet, they are often amazed that their cravings disappear.
Many modern foods have addictive qualities due to the unnatural way they have been produced. For example, wheat – unless it is spelt – is genetically engineered, and the enzymes which help us digest it are destroyed by processing. This means that many people have a ‘wheat intolerance’ which can cause bloating, bowel problems, weight gain, unstable blood sugar, headaches, cravings, allergies including hay fever (wheat is a grass!) and asthma. Pasteurisation destroys the enzymes in milk which results in the same problems. When these foods are not properly digested the proteins form intermediary products which resemble opiates. Studies in New York have demonstrated that people with eating disorders have a sensitivity to sugars and certain proteins and develop an uncontrollable craving for foods which provide an opioid effect. The eating disorder is therefore a compensatory behaviour. It develops in an attempt to control eating which becomes uncontrollable after eating certain trigger foods.
Manufacturers cynically include addictive substances in diet foods. Diet drinks are sweetened with artificial sweeteners which act as appetite stimulants and interfere with brain chemistry. They also may contain caffeine which causes a rise in blood sugar which is swiftly followed by a dip which causes a craving for something sweet.
Many people today suffer from unstable blood sugar due to the high ratio of carbohydrates in our modern diets. The day might start with cereal, toast, jam and caffeine and this sets the scene for the see-sawing of energy temporarily fixed by shots of coffee and sugar throughout the rest of the day. It is surprising to learn that the insulin producing cells of the pancreas form less than one percent of all pancreatic cells. Our ancestral diets were made-up of much higher levels of fat and protein so we certainly weren’t designed to eat all these carbs. If you leave it too long between meals your blood sugar may drop so low that once you start eating you cannot stop. Drops in blood sugar undermine many a hungry dieter’s determination, as the craving to eat something sweet to raise the blood sugar overcomes many a good intention. It is the biochemical fluctuations that result in denial, which is followed by hunger which usually ends in binge eating, followed by self-disgust which stimulates the next cycle of self-denial. (It is interesting to note that many alcoholics use alcohol to raise blood sugar and that correcting the blood sugar can sometimes completely cure alcoholism.)
Since the advent of the food processing industry, vegetable fats have been promoted as healthy. Margarines have been advertised as a better alternative to butter, and animal fats have been portrayed as harmful. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this. Animal fats have been eaten since the beginning of time. Modern degenerative diseases such as obesity, heart disease etc., are diseases of civilisation, and were almost unknown a hundred years ago. There has been a 350% increase in these diseases since the advent of food processing and the introduction of vegetable fats. Not eating the fats that the body needs results in craving. It is fat that provides the feeling of satiety, which is why eating low-fat meals is unsatisfying. Reducing the fat from foods means that the carbohydrate content is increased, and this can result in weight gain. Polyunsaturated fats (which advertising tells us are healthy) block the action of thyroid hormones in the cells, which can result in weight gain. The reason vegetable oils were promoted as healthy was commercial. By the end of the Second World War, the seed oil industry was in crisis due to the fact that new compounds from petroleum were displacing them in paints etc. A new market was needed. Step forward the ‘health lobby’ who managed to convince the public and health professionals alike that polyunsaturates were good for us, even though study after study was showing the opposite. In fact, polyunsaturates have a suppressive effect on the immune system and on thyroid hormones. However, eating animal fats such as butter and eggs as part of a balanced diet does not. Coconut oil is the exception as it stimulates the thyroid gland, raises metabolic rate and body temperature, and does not become rancid on heating, making it the safest oil for cooking.
Many people today suffer from fluid retention rather than excess fat deposition. The body may retain water for a number of reasons ranging from hormonal imbalances, the need to dilute toxins or an imbalance in sodium and potassium levels. Many people today avoid salt, but there is no comparison between the refined table salt (which most people eat and which is added to processed foods) and natural sodium which is required for many processes throughout the body. Fruits and vegetables provide balanced levels of sodium and potassium, and eating Celtic or Himalayan wholesalt supports a healthy mineral balance.
Apart from the misery and low self-esteem endured by people battling their weight, eating has a strong psychological component as our first experience of it relates to our relationship with our mothers. Food may be used as a comfort, or the withholding of food may be a way of punishing ourselves or helping us feel in control. Food releases a brain chemical called ‘dopamine’ which makes us feel good and motivated. Simple techniques such as Neuro Linguistic Programming and Thought Field Therapy can overcome subconscious hurts from our childhood that sabotage our good intentions. Slowing the speed at which you eat and savouring every bite reduces the amount you actually eat. Gulping food down quickly means that the brain doesn’t have a chance to register that you are eating, which is why eating on the hoof results in over-eating. It also makes good biochemical sense as chewing food slowly gives the stomach a chance to produce digestive juices which helps send a message to the brain that the appetite has been satisfied. The part of the brain that regulates appetite does not work efficiently if we are not exercising. The amount we eat is connected to the energy expenditure of our bodies, and lack of exercise results in a tendency to over-eat.
Eating is a form of self-nurturing and emphasising the delights of eating healthy foods is a far healthier and more enjoyable approach to weight control compared to the starvation and cravings experienced when eating ‘diet’ and low fat foods.
One final point – true weight loss is slow. Losing more than 2lbs per week means that you are either breaking down fluid or muscle. Since muscle is the most efficient fat burning tissue in the body this is not good news for dieters. Quick weight loss programmes are never successful in the long run. Successful weight regulation is really about eating the way we were designed to eat, and cheating the body into weight loss through deprivation is ultimately doomed to failure.
M.Sc (Hons) Natural Medicines, N.D., Dip I.O.N., L.C.Hom., C.B.A.K., Dip Couns., Certified Metabolic Typing Advisor (Intermediate). Naturopath, Homoeopath & Clinical Nutritionist