Eating to Lose Weight and Perform Better

Deprivation and decisions are two killers of success. We must be considerate of our brains and our bodies, if we really want to reach our goals.

Let’s start with a quick breakdown of why deprivation works against you.

#1 Depriving your body of the nutrients that it NEEDS will make you have cravings.

#2 Having to say “No” is decision-making. Having to make changes is also stressful. Making decisions and dealing with change causes stress and generally wears you down.

#3 Your brain reacts to stress by producing cortisol, which actually results in your body changing the way it uses energy, and telling you to consume a bunch of calories.

Let’s get science-y for a second: What cortisol is, and what it does

Our bodies, being the super-amazing things that they are, have a hormonal reaction to stress. When we get stressed, we have a reaction that favors our abilities to survive in that very moment. Have you heard of the “fight or flight” reaction? This is cortisol, hard at work, trying to help us escape danger.

According to an article in Today’s Dietician, “Cortisol, a glucocorticoid (steroid hormone), is produced from cholesterol in the two adrenal glands located on top of each kidney.”

“It regulates energy by selecting the right type and amount of substrate (carbohydrate, fat, or protein) the body needs to meet the physiological demands placed on it. When chronically elevated, cortisol can have deleterious effects on weight, immune function, and chronic disease risk.”

Cortisol isn’t trying to hurt you – it’s trying to help you survive the scares that come with life. But in our modern world of constant stressors – cell phones and intercoms buzzing and beeping, traffic building up, emails for days (or weeks or years)… it’s necessary to take extra steps in reducing stressors and finding ways to really take it easy on yourself.

“Under stressful conditions, cortisol provides the body with glucose by tapping into protein stores via gluconeogenesis in the liver. This energy can help an individual fight or flee a stressor. However, elevated cortisol over the long term consistently produces glucose, leading to increased blood sugar levels.” Cortisol sets off a number of chemical reactions in our bodies that actually change the way your body stores fat and uses energy.

So how does cortisol lead to weight gain? It actually affects what kind of fat your body stores, for one thing! Another connection is cortisol’s effect on appetite and cravings for high-calorie foods. Studies have demonstrated a direct association between cortisol levels and calorie intake in populations of women. Cortisol may directly influence appetite and cravings by binding to hypothalamus receptors in the brain. Cortisol also indirectly influences appetite by modulating other hormones and stress responsive factors known to stimulate appetite.”


Have any of these situations ever happened to you?

  • You’ve just gotten home from a long day, and you have to think of what you’re going to make for dinner. You feel tempted to eat out.
  • You’ve been watching a child or children all day, who are bombarding you with questions and requiring a lot of your attention. You feel worn out and let a couple of things slide that you normally wouldn’t.
  • You are shopping at the mall or your favorite store, and you decide to eat some foods that you normally wouldn’t.
  • You buy yourself a delicious treat with your groceries and promise yourself you’ll only eat a little at a time, and make it last. Then later when you’re hungry you find yourself eating way more than you should.

Making decisions wears you down. Think for a moment about your drive to work or the gym. How many restaurants and food stores would you estimate that you drive by, every day? If you live in Southern California like I do, the number is in the hundreds. And every time you pass a drive-through, you’re consciously making a decision to keep driving!

When taking care of small children, we recognize that when they are hungry and tired, they get cranky and upset. We realize that dangling a toy in front of them isn’t going to solve the problem. So we give them food and naps. Why can’t we see this need for ourselves?

When you’re tired and/or stressed, you are more likely to overeat, and it’s not just a “weak will.” Your body is part of the problem. Your body is telling you to get fuel, and ignore your will, and it will be very difficult to stop yourself.

Deprivation versus “Willpower”

There have been numerous studies on how deprivation affects performance. If you’re trying to maintain a strict diet, and also keep a stressful job, or perform in a big tournament, or get an A on a really hard test, you are making things more difficult for yourself than you might imagine!

In one 1996 experiment performed by psychologist Roy Baumeister and a few of his colleagues, 67 test subjects were put in a room filled with the aroma of fresh-baked cookies. Then, cookies and chocolates were presented to the subjects, but only some were allowed to eat them.  The other, perhaps less-lucky participants, were asked to eat radishes instead.

“After the food bait-and-switch, Baumeister’s team gave the participants a second, supposedly unrelated exercise, a persistence-testing puzzle. The effect of the manipulation was immediate and undeniable. Those who ate radishes made far fewer attempts and devoted less than half the time solving the puzzle compared to the chocolate-eating participants and a control group that only joined this latter phase of the study. In other words, those who had to resist the sweets and force themselves to eat pungent vegetables could no longer find the will to fully engage in another torturous task. They were already too tired.”

Our “willpower” is not indestructible! We must recognize that we can be worn down and this leads to bad decisions.

What can I do?

First and foremost, when you do eat, eat well. Load up on raw vegetables and fruits. These especially will answer for many of the micronutrients that your body needs. Also, make sure you’re taking in foods that are both good for you, and satisfying! Let yourself enjoy good foods by making them delicious and memorable.

Also, don’t set yourself up for failure: do not buy treats when you grocery shop. The rule is, if you buy it, you will eat it. So if your healthy eating doesn’t include cookies, chips, or soda, keep it out of the basket.

Distract yourself When you’re in line at the store, read a magazine while waiting instead of staring at the candy bars. When you’re driving, pay close attention to the other drivers and listen to music that you love, so you’re not peering longingly at the drive-through. Do things to make the number of “No’s” fewer throughout your day.

Reduce stress in your life. I know, this is easier said than done! But you need to understand what a priority it really is. Stress not only works against controlling your weight, but it’s also detrimental to your immune system, your attitude, and your appearance (to name a few things).  Take into account whatever you can control, and make the decision to do what’s right for your health and your family.

Own your responsibility of your work, and be fearless in protecting your health and the health of your loved ones. When you own what you’ve already done, you can move on without guilt.  If your job requires too long of a commute or too long of hours, or is fraught with high levels of stress, own that you made that choice to work there, and decide to make a change.  Changing jobs is not the end of the world. It’s the beginning of something great, when it’s done in the name of health or relationships.

Here are a few more simple tips:

*Buy a SMALL amount of raw fruits and/or veggies and bring them in your car for snacks on the go.

*Make a rule that no one brings the foods that are tempting into the house.

*Say “No thank you” to the fundraising foods and find a way to donate to the causes that matter to you, that doesn’t involve candy bars, cheese popcorn, or cookies.

*Make your meals ahead of time and just re-heat at meal times. This will save you from decisions and hard work after a long day.

*Have a healthy eating plan that is simple, delicious, and that does allow for the occasional indulgence.

*Set your clothes out the night before work. Have a place for your car keys, wallet, and sunglasses. The less clutter, decision-making, and searching you do each day, the less stress you’ll have.

*EAT! Don’t starve yourself, and then expect to make healthy, rational decisions.

So don’t let anyone tell you (including your inner voice) that you are weak-willed. Don’t just try to take control – take CARE! You will find yourself in a much stronger, better, and healthier state of mind!

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