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Weight loss: it's all in the mind

Date

Sarah Berry

Mind matters ... find out what you're really hungry for.

Mind matters ... find out what you're really hungry for.

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.

51 comments

  • This makes complete sense. I'm amazed that there are many medical professionals who think that it's about a pronounced sense of hunger. For some, it can be nearly addictive. For myself, sugar is my Achilles heel. It doesn't matter if it's chocolate or soft drink (although fully sugar loaded soft drink hastens weight gain for me personally), sugar really does it for me and I do actually avoid buying junk or stocking it (visitors to my house can get over the fact that there are never any biscuits or bite sized chocs), but still experience the occasional downfall and occasional 1-2 kg weight gain because of it.

    Commenter
    AM
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    February 20, 2012, 10:28AM
    • @AM - I gave up all processed sugar and junk food 2 weeks ago and I have lost 4kg already. I agree entirely sugar was my problem. I thought I ate a healthy diet but I did not factor in the chocolate bars (daily), chips in front of the TV and nibbling on smarties throughout the day. It really does add up. I have not found it hard to give up at all which has surprised me. If I was the type of person who could eat a tim tam and leave it at that it would be fine but I would eat half the packet so for me avoiding junk completely has proved succesful.

      Commenter
      SallyL
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      February 20, 2012, 2:16PM
    • SallyL, how can you think you ate healthy when you were eating chocolate bars, chips and smarties?

      Commenter
      bw
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      February 20, 2012, 3:47PM
    • @ SallyL. half a pack of timtams? what willpower, i can't stop till they're all gone
      @AM I know what you mean, visitors at my house have nothing sweet at all. If I buy a 2l bottle of coke or any pack of sweets, it'll be gone by the end of the day. Only way to avoid it is to never buy it!

      Commenter
      Bloke
      Location
      China
      Date and time
      February 20, 2012, 5:02PM
    • @bw - I ate really healthy main meals - homemade muslie and fruit for breakfast, salad for lunch and salad and fish for dinner but then snacked on crap. It just crept up on me until I had a full blown sugar addiction and I started to gain weight. I didn't realise how much junk I was eating until the weight started to go on...

      Commenter
      SallyL
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      February 21, 2012, 10:32AM
  • I totally agree with the idea that there is a psychological element to eating and weight loss.

    I have recently done some hypnotherapy to help with eating issues (cravings, overeating) and found it to be very successful. I am much less obsessed with food and am eating a lot less, making better food choices as well. I have also been using a food diary/calorie counting iPhone app to keep track of what I am eating - and I think this is very useful, especially for people who think they are eating well but can't seem to lose weight - it's surprising how many calories some apparently "healthy" foods have.

    In 6 weeks I have lost 4 kilos without hardcore workouts or starving myself.

    Commenter
    origin2001
    Date and time
    February 20, 2012, 10:36AM
    • "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."

      This is basically the food pyramid which we all learnt in school. This dietary recomendation is very high in carbohydrates and its introduction happens to coincide with the onset of the obesity epedemic.

      Commenter
      Jezz
      Date and time
      February 20, 2012, 10:48AM
      • Yeah, must be the bread and pasta in moderation. Can't be because people are drinking litres of soft drink, driving everywhere and eating take-away multiple times per week?

        Commenter
        Michelle
        Date and time
        February 20, 2012, 11:03AM
      • Jezz, nobody I know eating from the 'classic' food pyramid in appropriate quantities, and doing the appropriate amount of exercise, is overweight.

        I'm not suggesting this is you, but all this talk of the paleo diet that we hear, never mentions (that I've seen) the paleo LIFESTYLE.

        Besides which, the pyramid food triangle is actually a LOT healthier than the way most of us were eating before that. I grew up in the fifties where a meal without dessert wasn't a meal. We had two sugars in our Milo.

        Individual household purchase of plain, white sugar has plummeted. Consumption by way of processed foods, though, has skyrocketed.

        I'm more inclined to listen to what marathon and ultra-marathon runners say about carbs and protein (carbs for energy prior, and protein for recovery after - roughly) than someone *just* suggesting a change from the pyramid.

        Paleo lifestyles required them to RUN and CATCH that protein.

        In the book Born to Run, a man who spends time with the Kalahari bushmen discovers just how much they burn off in order to collect that protein.

        Commenter
        bornagirl
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        February 20, 2012, 11:42AM
      • Bornagirl, I switched to a diet high in protein and fats and low in carbs two months ago, have lost 10 kgs, eat as often as I want and have never felt better. I planned to lose only 5 kgs but the weight has just kept on coming off.

        Prior to starting the diet I had no idea what my carb intake was. I figured out that with milk, cereals, flour, bread, rice, pasta, fruit and fruit juices I was consuming the equivalent of around 1/2 kg of sugar a day (and that's consuming very little fast food or sugared drinks). I suspect the diet I was on is not atypical of that of many people who think they are eating healthily.

        Commenter
        Jezz
        Date and time
        February 20, 2012, 12:27PM

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