It will come as no surprise to hear that as a Performance Coach I often get asked for a nutrition plan to help a client lose weight, get healthier or put on muscle. Invariably they are after a prescription of what they can and cannot eat and in what quantities. While there are short term gains to be made with such prescription, over the long run it is not sustainable. You can get more background on that in my previous article on fad diets HERE, and understanding how change process works HERE. At Absolute we do not offer food prescriptions. Rather, we work with best-in-class dieticians who are dedicated to this space.
So, to start this article, I want to ask you, how important do you think calories, macronutrients, vitamins, minerals & meal timings are when it comes to improving your nutrition?
Of course calories, macronutrients, vitamins, minerals & meal timings are important factors, but for most people addressing these quantitative elements of nutrition is a far later step in improving nutrition., Your relationship to food, and emotions around it, is the preferable starting point.
No two people will look at a plate of food the same way, it will have different meanings and responses for everyone, and therefore, will metabolise in very different ways. I explain now how the psychological and emotional reactions to that same plate of food, becomes very real and tangible physical responses.
Someone desperate to lose weight who has struggled with yo-yo diets, will look at plate of chicken & pasta and just see calories, carbs and fat and experience fear, stress, and quite often guilt, while someone with a great attitude towards food, maybe an athlete, will see the same meal and think tasty, yum, fuel, muscle growth and repair. This results in a varying stress response, causing differing metabolic processes, and therefore, has as much effect on the end result as the chemical breakdown of the food. This is why the way, coaches, trainers speak to you and how you speak to yourself through internal dialogue, must positive, non-judgmental and accepting. I always like to tell my clients when they come to me, feeling guilty about something they ate, to respond to these things in the future, with a loud and proud “DAMN THAT’S TASTY!”. I want them to be free of guilt and remind themselves that first and foremost food is for enjoyment and nourishment.
The Power of The Mind
Our mind is an incredibly powerful tool. How you think about food becomes reality in the Central Nervous System. A notable example of this is the placebo effect, which has many other factors, something many over the counter medications rely on. How much do you think this power then influences our metabolism?
Now let’s go through two different examples of the power of the mind, how we think about food, and the flow on physical effects this has:
Example 1: Some one that has a positive relationship with food, non-guilt, “damn that’s tasty!”, eating cake.
- Idea of eating cake occurs in cerebral cortex
- From there, information is relayed electro-chemically to the limbic system, which regulates emotions and basic survival functions such as hunger, thirst, temperature, sex drive, heart rate, and blood pressure
- Hypothalamus takes sensory, emotional and thought input and translates this information into a physiological response
- If cake is something that gives you positive thoughts, not guilt about “bad food”, then it will activate increased function in your salivary glands, oesophagus, stomach, intestines, pancreas, liver & gall bladder
- Metabolism kicks up a gear in response thus ensuring it spends less time in digestive processes, causing less gastrointestinal distress and inflammation
- Your body burns it up as fuel baby!!!
Example 2: Some one that has a negative relationship with food, the “always dieting” person, feels guilty eating traditional “junk foods”, eating cake.
- Idea of eating cake occurs in cerebral cortex
- Cerebral cortex tells hypothalamus this is a “bad” or “guilty” food
- Hypothalamus takes this info with emotional response into physiological response
- Body interprets this situation as stressor or attack to your body, so down-regulates function for all digestive areas mentioned above
- Metabolism goes in to fight or flight response from cortisol increase – shuts down
- The cake spends increased time in digestive processes – diminishes population of good bacteria
- Decreased calorie burning continues via increased inflammation, cortisol and insulin response
- “Cake makes me fat” comes true, and thus the guilt cycle continues
The Physical Response to Emotion – A Few Key Things to Think About
Stress can put weight on, relaxation can take it off
When we are stressed, our stress hormones, namely cortisol, increase, and this influences our insulin response. This turns us catabolic, we break the good stuff down, and we have an unwanted response to store excessive body fat, and that is why stressful and restrictive strategies always fail for weight loss and health efforts.
Happiness is the best digestive aid
When we are unhappy or stressed, through our fight or flight response our body thinks we are under attack, and the reaction to this, to conserve energy, is that our digestion processes shut down. Think about our primal responses to being chased by animals, the body is like “why waste energy when under threat”. So, eating in relaxed and happy state fuels digestion, pleasure and nutrient assimilation.
Overeating is not a will power problem
When we are rushed, stressed, thinking guilty thoughts or not fully present at a meal we are not aware of how much we consume, and as a result we do not taste or feel nourished. Our brain requires satisfaction to trigger metabolic processes, so when we eat too fast or are stressed, our brain misses clues and literally thinks you haven’t eaten, so we keep eating till this need is met. We seek pleasure not pain, so if we are having negative thoughts about food, our stress hormone cortisol desensitises our brain to pleasure, making it more likely you will over eat.
Faster eating equals stress response & slower metabolism
If we eat our food too fast, like hastily devouring your lunch at the desk, it is also considered a stressor to the body as we are not wired to eat this way. You enter a stress response, have decreased digestion & nutrient assimilation, increased nutrient excretion and a decreased energy metabolic consumption. This rushed eating, followed by this stress response, decreases the pleasure experienced, leading to greater risks of overeating to reach that pleasure point.
Emotional eating is not the enemy
I dislike the use of this term. Humans are emotional beings and emotions are always at the table., What is important is we bring the right ones. Uncontrolled ‘emotional eating’ is a symptom of something deeper, so there is a need to refer to a psychologist to find the source.
Throw away toxic food beliefs
“Fat in food becomes fat in my body”, “Carbs at night are bad”, if we believe any type of food is the enemy it’s the fight or flight and stress response all over again.
So, how important are calories, macronutrients, vitamins, minerals & meal timing? Very important of course, but if that is where you start when trying to address healthy nutrition change, then you are skipping one very important piece of the puzzle. Your relationship with food and the power of thought.
In part 2 & 3 I will progress beyond the relationship with food discussed above, and start to go into greater detail on the next steps on improving your nutrition, health and exercise. You can jump to part 2 HERE.
Written by Co-founder and Head Performance Coach David Smith