It's possible to eat whatever you want and still lose weight. In fact, it's possible to do away with confusing and contradictory diets and fads. It just involves a little mind over platter, says nutritionist and author Kathleen Alleaume in her new book, What's Eating You: Find Your Balance with Food and Lose Weight.
"Diets don't work and they will only cause you to yo-yo and gain more fat. Blacklisting carbs or going on heavily restrictive calorie-controlled diets are lousy ideas," she says.
"We all know what we 'should' be eating. Five serves of veg and two serves of fruit, mixed with moderate portions of lean meat, dairy, eggs, wholegrains and nuts, yet we are not doing it.
"The simple message of 'get back to basics' has been lost. Unfortunately we make certain things in life e.g. eating more complicated than it needs to be."
Alleaume is one of a growing number of health experts who say weight problems are not so much about what we are eating as why we are eating. "We [need to] learn to listen to the inner whispers of our body and learn to be very honest about what we are actually hungry for. For example, learn to eat primarily for physical hunger rather than emotional reasons. When we learn to rely on internal hunger – we get better at registering the fullness cues."
Alleaume sees a wide range of people with issues that vary from weight management to improving sleep, lowering cholesterol to nutrition for running a marathon. Yet, regardless of the issue or her clients' level of nutritional knowledge, she sees a common theme: they eat for other reasons apart from hunger. When they're stressed, bored, tired or upset, they turn to food.
It is for this reason that she decided to write her book. "I see so many people with this underlying cause of overeating and/or unhealthy eating 'behaviours' aka bad eating habits. With so much emphasis on 'what' we should be eating, I wanted to also put emphasis on 'why we eat what we eat' - which for many, is the missing link to long-term weight managements and improvements in eating habits."
The first step is to distinguish between 'hunger' and 'appetite.' "Hunger is the physical need for food. Appetite is the desire to eat food," Alleaume says. "The desire to eat is most often influenced by our emotions, habits, lifestyle, culture, memories, as well as the sight, smell and taste of food. So, if one can learn to eat when they are actually hungry, and not just because their appetite tells them to (because food is in front of them), [it] will make a huge difference to the total amount of food eaten."
Doing this involves getting back in touch with what you're really hungry for, she says. "Chances are it may not be food. It may be affection, or self-esteem or, perhaps, deep inside you don't really like your job or the career path you have chosen."
Once you are clear on what's eating you, the next step is bringing awareness to your thought patterns. "The average human has approximately 60,000 thoughts per day and many of them - around 95 per cent - are the same thoughts we had yesterday and the day before," Alleaume says. "Yet most people are aware of less than 5 per cent of their thoughts and the impact these thoughts have on their actions.....They will shape your attitude, how you feel, what you do."
The idea is not to berate yourself for thinking in a negative way, but simply notice certain thoughts and beliefs occurring. "The more you are aware of your thoughts, assumptions and beliefs, as well as the extent to which you are influenced by them, the more you can take responsibility and shift your internal paradigm."
Which means being mindful of the food choices you make and how your body responds to what you are putting in it. "They say old habits never die," Alleaume says. "However, I believe they just remain dormant. But, we can learn new habits and replace the bad ones."
Alleaume's top tips:
1. Learn to recognise true hunger. If you have just eaten within the last two hours, chances are you are not physically hungry.
2. Tweak your treats. Avoid stocking the cupboard or refrigerator with comfort foods laced with fat, sugar or salt. Gradually replace them with healthier versions. For example swap the banana bread for fruit toast.
3. Manage stress. We look for comfort when we are stressed. The goal is to lower stress with healthful strategies, including regular exercise and adequate sleep, rather than seeking comfort in food.
4. Figure out your triggers: Keep a food diary of what you eat, when you eat, and why you eat it. Knowing your motivations for why you eat will make you conscious of your triggers, and you can begin to change your patterns.
5. Practice mindful eating. Many times people eat without even realising what they are consuming. We become easily distracted, whether it's from work, the kids, or watching television. When it's time to eat, make the effort to sit and savour every mouthful. This technique can help increase awareness of the sensations, feelings and thoughts connected with food and eating.
What's Eating You: Find Your Balance with Food and Lose Weight, $32.95. Random House Books.