Article written by: Kirstin Sharpe
If you struggle with obesity, not only are you likely to struggle with other chronic health issues, but you are also more than likely to struggle with quality of life, body image, self-esteem, and mood regulation. The correlation between poor gut health, anxiety and depression indicates that the health of the microbiome is closely tied to a person’s mental health. Since the gut is responsible for producing neurotransmitters like serotonin, being intentional about gut health may help those struggling with weight and mental health complications. Being overweight is a psychological burden that impacts a vast number of individuals in nearly every country. While no country has yet to reverse the growth of this epidemic, the good news is that the causes of obesity are reversible and preventable.
Goal Setting: What do you want to achieve?
The cells of your gastrointestinal tract that make up the lining of your gut need sufficient fuel [food] to divide and multiply correctly. What you put into your body directly impacts your gut health and a healthy gut microbiome is vital to health. Your body can’t absorb the nutrients it needs from food or naturally produce vitamins if your gut is not healthy and working properly. If you want to build healthy habits with food, WHAT you eat is only part of the big picture. You also must look at HOW you eat and WHO you are being when you eat.
Answer the following ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions honestly:
- Do you scroll on social media while you are eating?
- Do you watch TV while you eat?
- Do you continue to work on your lunch break?
- Do you eat as quickly as possible?
- Do you eat too little?
- Do you eat too much?
- Do you eat when you’re not actually hungry?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, choose the ONE you think would be the best place to start for you. It’s important to cultivate healthy associations with food like being present with a meal, slowing down, enjoying a meal with co-workers or friends, serving yourself reasonable portion sizes, and intuitively following hunger cues.
Problem solving: What is currently stopping you?
Once we create an association with food, for example watching TV while eating, every time you sit down to watch TV you run the risk of getting the feeling that something is missing, and you’ll likely reach for a snack when you aren’t actually hungry. If we typically don’t eat popcorn, why is it that when we go to the movies so many of us order a tub of it loaded with butter and salt? Most likely because eating popcorn is associated with going to see a movie!
Eating too quickly could result in still feeling hungry and reaching for a second serving before you’ve given yourself the time to process that you’re full. We become accustomed to the amount of food we eat so we crave more or less depending on what our bodies are used to. Try to track your food intake as well as mood and fullness levels to detect patterns. By doing this, it is easier to assess our eating patterns and make intentional shifts that will improve our health. Grab the FREE download below.
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Overweight individuals often turn to food after experiencing negative emotions, but the phenomenon of emotional eating is present for healthy-weight individuals as well. One theory is that binging occurs in an attempt to escape from negative self-awareness. When attention is focused on food, this allows one to avoid dealing with ego-threatening information and veer away from meaningful levels of cognition. Chronic dieters or “restrained” eaters are particularly vulnerable to eat in reaction to negative emotional events.
Action Planning: What will you do differently?
If you struggle with eating too much, instead of depriving yourself or trying to completely change what you eat, try decreasing the portion size at each meal. If you eat too little, try upping the serving size instead of trying to force yourself to eat extra meals when you aren’t hungry.
Drinking a glass of water before a meal will leave you feeling fuller without having to eat as much food. Nutrition may look different for everyone but aim to keep the focus on consuming nutrient dense fresh foods (vegetables, fruits, wild fish, pasture raised meats) is another way to increase this feeling. Start adding more servings (½ to 1cup) of probiotic, prebiotic and high-fiber foods like beans, oats, apples, bananas, avocados, carrots, asparagus, artichokes, and whole-wheat foods at least three times daily, five or more servings is ideal.
Adding just one serving a day of fermented food/drink like kimchi, yogurt, or kombucha can increase the health of your gut bacteria as well! For anyone used to fermented food and drink, the right amount is three times a day if you also consume a good amount of fiber throughout the day.
Trial and error are often necessary, start small and see how your gut reacts. You’ll likely experience some bowel changes that could last a couple weeks when you shift your diet or jump to adding three servings of fermented food when your body is not used to it. Everyone has different ideal servings so listen to your body, any stomach discomfort is typically a sign to back off. As you increase your servings of foods good for gut health, you may naturally fall away from the bad foods you were once fond of.
You can also choose a probiotic supplement to improve your microbiome. A certified nutritionist or a registered dietitian can help you determine if you might benefit from taking a probiotic supplement, which supplement would be the best to take, or can help you determine if you are already getting enough probiotics through your diet.
Self-Reward: How will you reward yourself for success?
Food activates pleasure and reward centers in the brain, and a gratification habit is formed through the production of dopamine via these reward pathways. The foods you eat create a positive feeling of gratification that fuels the desire for more. Think yourself into feeling good about eating fruits, vegetables, protein, and healthy fats and watch how easy it becomes to gravitate towards these foods when you are happy about eating them. You will naturally want more when you embody the idea that you need this food for optimal function and the return of energy and satisfaction will motivate you to keep it going.
Reward yourself for keeping up with the eating goals you’ve set for yourself! Buy that blender you’ve been wanting, take that cooking class you’ve wanted to participate in, or sleep in for a morning if you want to avoid spending money. When we reward ourselves, dopamine is released, and we become motivated and driven to keep up with our goals. This is the same brain chemical that is released when we eat food but instead of using food to feel good, choose a reward that feels good.
The World Health Organization reports 1.9 billion adults being overweight and of those, 650 million are considered obese. Over 340 million children aged 5-19 were either overweight or obese which means that well over 25% of the population struggling to maintain a healthy weight. The reality is most people know what foods they need to be eating and that they should watch their portion sizes. What keeps people stuck is following through with their intentions. An upcoming article will cover the “intention-behavior gap” and weight management tools for optimal weight loss!
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