In case you’ve lived under a rock since 2010: 67 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. We didn’t get here due to a lack of available information on diets. We’re here because we’re stuck — paralyzed, in fact — in a weight-cycling, binging and restricting, diet-culture-induced purgatory. It’s swallowed up so many patients, friends, family, and lovely acquaintances — that I went so far as to give this new existential home a name: Welcome to “The Information Jungle,” where anything and everything you eat (or do) will either kill you, or magically change your life — 30 pounds in 30 days!
If we’re getting technical, here: I define the “Information Jungle” as an existential crisis triggered by the consumption of media in all forms. In our age of democratized information, we can “tune in” to millions of channels, accounts, feeds, platforms, speeches, texts, or simply recall something mildly traumatic from childhood, and suddenly doubt everything we thought we knew about what to eat and when to eat it. While mixed messages run rampant here in the Info Jungle, one idea seems pretty lucid to me: The sheer volume of information from all forms of media everywhere — from experts to family members — is rendering us inert and feeling betrayed. For most of us, we have a tendency to blame ourselves (“I just can’t cut out carbs!”) or to shift the blame entirely (“Big food is lying to us!”).
The confluence of various messages leads us to believe that in order to achieve well-being, we have to eliminate food, spend money, and/or strip the joy away from every conceivable area of our lives. It would seem that eating certain foods or practicing various behaviors is done in the name of “health,” (or in 2019, “wellness”); but actually, I’d argue that much of the messaging on all fronts is unhelpful at best, and damaging — physically, psychologically and financially — at worst.
So, how did we get here?
From a science and health perspective: When we talk about how what we eat affects our health, we’re often talking about relationships — associations — between a specific food and a specific health outcome. It’s unsurprising that the type of information that catches fire the fastest are slices of statistics derived from pseudo-science (hypotheses stated or reported as “fact,” or its cousins, “causes” and “proven to…”), while other times the information stems from biological plausibility. This principle means that it’s biochemically comprehensible as to why there is a rationale behind studying the effect of a variable on a hyper-specific biologic process — but it does not mean that a cause and effect relationship of one specific variable on one specific will ever come to pass. Case in point? Sugar substitutes, a recently-demonized protein called, “lectin,” and soy isoflavones — all of which could potentially harm you if you injected them into your veins in high doses — but in the form you’re most likely to consume these nutrients (the food that makes up your meals and snacks), there’s simply nothing there there. Yet, in an age of disruption, capitalizing on hyperbole — even in science — is revered as a point of difference.
Talking about weight loss has grown increasingly more complicated and polarizing over time. Most of us Gen Yers grew up surrounded by messages about a little unit of energy called “calories,” in which diets were our first taste of self-improvement by way of deprivation and restriction. When we “failed” at one or all of them, we gave up and blamed ourselves (I have no willpower!) someone else (college! My Job! My family!). Later, a cohort of us came around and realized the system itself was flawed: 95 percent of diets fail. But others have displaced diet culture with “wellness,” where the words are fluid, but the structure stays the same: Follow this set of rules, ascribe to this clear philosophy, recite these mantras and you’ll achieve quick/easy/life-changing results. Except that industries capitalizing on wellness have an edge: They’re limitless. Diets ultimately end, but wellness is “about the journey.”
Both have a common denominator: The continued propagation of the myth that in order to improve your well-being, you have to be something (or someone) you’re not right now. Both require avoidance of or abstinence from behaviors deemed “toxic” or “bad for you” in order to achieve worthiness. Frankly, that’s a shame trigger. And it’s really not my cup of tea.
It’s this message of alienation that have undoubtedly contributed to another public health epidemic — one that’s linked to obesity in more ways than one: Loneliness. In fact, a December 2018 study published in the journal, International Psychogeriatrics cites that three-quarters of Americans experience moderate to high levels of loneliness at various stages of the lifespan — which is predicted to be as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day as it relates to your mortality risk). But we’re not seeking treatment for it in the ways that might help us permanently “detox” from the messages that got us here in the first place: Only 20 percent of Americans are diagnosed by a physician with anxiety or depression, yet CBD is currently valued at $350 million, and projected to reach $22 billion by 2022.
If we really believed we had the agency to take action to lose weight and make improvements in our current state of health, would we feel like we had to rely on someone else’s “rules” for achieving and maintaining better health? Would we have to cut out food groups, nutrients, restaurants, or experiences that tricked us into believing we were incapable of trusting our own hunger and satiety cues, or trusting in food itself? Would we feel like we had to like gluten-free, dairy-free baked goods otherwise known as paperweights — without considering what’s needed to make any food product “free from” a specific ingredient in the first place?! It’s these things that cause all of us to conflate feelings of self-ineptitude with feelings of virtuosity — without empowering ourselves to succeed in the first place.
If not “diets” or “rules,” then what…?
First, allow me to hereby announce that better health and weight loss is not a sport at the 2020 Olympics, nor is it actually as complicated as manipulating your own biology into mimicking a state of starvation, only to find yourself ten pounds heavier the next time you eat a saltine. It’s about choices — and the boundaries we set for ourselves that help us uphold these plans for the sake of our own health: lifestyle-related behavior that works best for you, within the context of your everyday life — from the food you eat to the activities you engage in. The only commitment you’ll make is to practice — by setting boundaries you need to make choices that uphold your health priorities. Practice makes confidence; confidence makes habits, and habits are the building blocks of your health and well-being — for life.
1. Begin with a little “conscious unfollowing“
If ever there were a “jumpstart” that actually works, it’s this: Conscious unfollowing, to borrow a term from a well-known wellness guru, requires you to go through each and every social media feed you check regularly and consciously unfollow any and all accounts that, for any reason or none at all, make you feel bad about yourself. Yes, folks: You have my blessing to get started on this right now. If there is a feed (or hundreds of ‘em) that you’re currently following that trigger feelings of isolation, alienation, or shame: It is your right to rid yourself of that toxic noise and protect the information that’s processed by your brain, often unconsciously dictating your inner monologue. So, let’s add a filter. Let in the information that serves you, and cutting out the B.S.. that makes life feel harder than it already is. Because, reminder: Life is hard! But it’s also too short: We don’t need to spend any more time letting someone else’s rules dictate our choices.
2. Apply the Daubert Standard
Whether it’s your family physician or someone being interviewed on TV with an “M.D.” after his name, remember that expert “advice” is only useful to you if you can apply it to your every day life. But how can you tell? Enter: The Daubert Standard, a legal tool used to assess whether or not scientific evidence is admissible in a court of law. In your life, no matter what you do for a living: I like to use a modified version of this standard when it comes determining whether or not to heed the advice of anyone you deem credible — be it an article you’re reading or your cousin’s doctor-boyfriend. If the answer to any of these three questions gives you pause, consider seeking other options with strategies better suited to your lifestyle.
- Does this information or advice make me feel inadequate or overwhelmed?
- Does this information or advice make me feel better or worse today?
- Is this information aligned with what I like to do, think about, read, listen to, learn about, talk about every single day in a way that feels generally positive to me?
3. Change your language (and yes, your hashtags count here, too—I see you, #cheatday!)
Here are a few of my other favorite words to eliminate:
- Instead of moderation, more: When it comes to vegetables and fruit? Bottom line is that more is more (aka better). Eat more of these foods, and no matter what else you’re doing, you’re going to lose weight, and you’re going to get sick less frequently. Keep this up over time, and you’ll also reduce your risk of chronic diseases — not just the common cold.
- Instead of elimination, whole: Whole describes the best form in which to eat fiber-filled fruit and veggies. Instead of elimination, think about choosing whole foods more often — fruit instead of fruit juice; vegetables instead of veggie chips; whole-grain bread instead of white bread; a whole baked sweet potato instead of sweet potato fries. Eating more food in its natural state helps you replace less nutritious foods with better ones. This does not mean completely eliminating those “less than whole” foods I mentioned, but rather choosing whole foods — and getting creative with how you prepare them — more often.
- Instead of “bad food,” treat; instead of “good food,” breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks: Let’s start with the facts. Neither “bad” nor, “good” food is a real thing. (Thanks again, Info Jungle!) A “treat” is whatever you personally consider indulgent, which can change from day to day, and it’s up to you — not your friends, family members, or co-workers — to assign value to foods you absolutely love but you know would make you feel not so great physically or mentally if you were to eat your weight in them all day, every day. The same theory applies to “good food,” when what we really just mean food that is very much a part of our everyday lives. When we attribute value to food, we’re giving it too much power. There is no value system or a merit award for how many (or few) calories, carbs, or grams of sugar a single food, meal, or snack provides, so stop treating it as such.
- Instead of calories, energy: This isn’t just a language change; it’s a scientific fact: Calories are actually kilocalories, and they’re units of energy. The thing to think about most here is that because calories are units of energy, they’re also what gives you power to do the other things in life you love to do. When you think about how much energy you’re getting from a certain food — how it’s fueling you to do what’s next on your to-do list, or how it provides what you need to do other things you want to do (read, walk, go to an exercise class, go out with friends, etc.), you will have a better internal scale of the amount of energy you need to enjoy those activities.
- Instead of “I should,” or, “I can’t,” I choose to: Regardless of what you’ve previously practiced or learned before right now, the more you’re able to reframe your meals and snacks as informed personal choices, the more likely you are to create a new patterns that lead to habits for life. Starting by re-phrasing any food decision that you may have slipped into conversation as, “I know I should, but…” as, “I choose to eat…” is simple, straightforward, and effective for a holistic approach to better health.
4. But, first: biology
Most of us are skipping meals, not eating satiety-promoting foods when we do eat, nor are we considering what else is going on in our lives when we make decisions about food — especially when it comes to how hungry feel, or how a given meal will affect us right now for whatever’s on the agenda, later. While you may have previously subscribed to the “I have no willpower” myth in the past: It’s my experience that it’s often one (or a combo) of three factors that stealthily contribute to how satisfied you feel on a day-to-day (and sometimes, hour-to-hour!) basis:
- You’re (mildly) dehydrated — DRINK: One sixteen ounce glass of H2O or sparkling water, or really any unsweetened beverage—before you dive in on the donut holes in mid-morning status meeting. Often, we confuse thirst and hunger, so the best way to really know what you’re in the mood for eating or how hungry you actually are in a given moment is to sit down and treat yourself to a refreshing beverage. So, bottoms up before you dive-into donuts before 10AM.
- You skipped a meal, skipped breakfast, or didn’t eat enough at either — SNACK: Eat consistently, every 3-4 hours and make sure you’re not missing a satiety-promoting nutrient—protein, fiber, and fat. This has the added benefit of naturally helping you eat less by grazing less at night—so you can stay focused on priorities like sleep, for example…
- You’re not getting enough sleep — GO TO BED. If it’s late? Well, GO TO BED! But if that’s frowned upon at your place of work (yep, I hear you): The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 300-400mg of caffeine/day, which translates into about 3-4 8oz cups of regular coffee, daily. Have these in an unsweetened form (without sugary syrups or a latte that doubles as a milkshake), and you’re in better shape than you were 30 minutes ago (and less likely to get your hand-slapped for sleeping during a status report meeting).
Ultimately, real, lasting weight loss and actualizing better (not “perfect”) health is a dynamic result of how we eat most of the time — and it certainly can’t be “derailed” by one meal, one day, or one week of eating in a way that’s not your personal best. Remember that, and you’ve created the strategy you need to make health-promoting choices for life.
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