For the first time in human history, food is abundant, significantly higher in calories and a ton of it is engineered to make you want more. With so many options constantly around us, from gas stations to vending machines to ordering four-course meals at the tips of your fingers, it can be difficult to reign in the calories, especially if you're used to eating whatever you want, whenever you want. Dieting can feel like an insurmountable task. Don't get discouraged, there's hope!
Here, we'll talk about a few of the best ways to cut your calories. Some of these require a little self-reflection in the moment, others require a little more forethought in the grocery store, but by implementing these strategies, you'll find it easier to make it to the end of your day in a calorie deficit which is key to losing weight.
1. Avoid processed foods.
If you're constantly choosing food that sets off the pleasure receptors in your brain, you're fighting an uphill battle and if you don't believe me check out this 2013 article from the NY Times, The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food.
The taste and mouth-feel of these foods are designed to make you want more, the combination of fats, salt and sugars is like a drug to the brain, triggering addictive tendencies.
Here's an excerpt from a study regarding the book: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss, “ The 300 processed food manufacturers (pp. 213, 220) “dominate the American diet” (p. xxx), with 60,000 products in the supermarkets (pp. 27, 98), relying on salt, sugar, and fat, which “override our dietary self-control” with foods “so perfectly engineered to compel overconsumption” (pp. xix, 253, 333, 346). Salt, sugar, and fat are “the three pillars of processed food” (pp. xiii, 22, 39, 70, 264, 281, 289, 293, 337). With sugar and fat intake, brain pleasure centers light up bright yellow in functional magnetic resonance imaging studies (pp. 148–149, 276), just as with cocaine (p. xxvii).”
These foods derail a diet easily. They are typically high in calorie and low in food volume, leaving us unsatisfied and craving more. For the amount of calories in a candy bar you could eat three medium sized apples. I know it doesn't sound as enticing (it's not loaded with salt, sugar and fat after all) but, at around 80 calories per apple, the amount of water and fiber would leave you feeling full and it would satisfy that sweet tooth.
Additionally, the more that you avoid processed foods, the less adapted your palette will be. If you cut out excess sugar, fruit will naturally start to taste sweeter. It won't be an immediate change, but eventually you'll start craving the natural stuff over the processed and you can eat a lot more of the natural stuff for significantly less calories, leading to consuming more food volume (meaning you'll keep feeling full!) and still losing weight!
2. Stop snacking and grazing.
Snacks and grazing are just incomplete meals. Since it's not a lot of volume at one time, you'll never feel full or satiated leading you to keep doing it and accumulating more unnecessary calories into your diet.
One step to cut out snacking is to identify why you are doing it.
Are you genuinely hungry? What about the meals that you've had aren't satisfying? Are you missing or low in key macro-nutrients like fats or proteins, which are more satiating than carbs?
One issue I've identified with clients in the past, is that their meals are almost entirely carbohydrate based, lacking in protein and fat. While there is nothing wrong with higher carbs, an unbalanced ratio to protein and fats can lead to feeling hungrier sooner and, therefore, raiding the fridge more often.
Let say everything is balanced, and you're still digging through the cabinet looking for something to nibble on, are you snacking because your bored?
Snacking because we're bored is a way to keep ourselves occupied, not because we're genuinely hungry. To break this habit, it's helpful to have a game plan. Make a list of substitute behaviors you'll try instead, before you dig in. Can you go for a walk? Do some push ups? Call a friend? Read a book? Sometimes, occupying the brain is all we need to get over this habit.
Or give yourself a break to process the feelings and hold off on munching for a set amount of time, 10-20 minutes. If the time is up and you still want to chow down, sit and have an actual meal that will satisfy you. You may actually be hungry and designating the time to conscientiously eating may keep you from accruing little bites throughout the day. If after 10-20 minutes is up and you forgot about wanting to snack, then you weren't hungry and you saved yourself the calories.
3. Recognize if it's hunger or a craving.
If you're genuinely hungry, you'll eat anything, be that cake or a chicken breast. In this instance, sit down and have a meal.
If you finish eating and you want more of the same thing you just had, i.e. steak and potatoes, have more of the steak and potatoes. That's hunger. So go ahead and have more of the same thing you just ate.
If after you're done eating, you want more but, this time it's something different like ice cream, hold off for a bit. That's a craving.
Ultimately, if you are hungry, you'll eat more of what you just had because you haven't satisfied that need. If you're switching it up, especially for treats, that's a craving. It's not something you need, it's something you want. When this happens, give yourself twenty minutes. If it's fleeting, you'll have forgotten about it and saved yourself the needless calories. If it's still on your mind, have a little, satisfy the sweet tooth and move on, practicing moderation.
Changing Your Diet Isn't Easy
Recognize that changing your diet isn't easy! You have gone from making the choice to eat whatever you want, whenever you want (calories and food content be-damned!) to making a conscious choice to change your behavior. It is going to require a little bit of sacrifice and that's the part that sucks. It's about weighing the outcomes. Are you happy eating whatever you want and living with the repercussions of that? Or is it worth it to make a treat occasional and feel happier and healthier in the long run? Ultimately, it's your decision and no one can do this, but you. Try sticking to it for a couple of weeks through the discomfort and it will get a lot easier and if you slip up, try again. You don't have to be perfect, you just have to try!
Stay tuned for Part II, 3 More Ways To Stick to Eating Healthy!