Listening to your body – eating well

I wrote a post for Pick the Brain last week about listening to your body when it comes to sifting through all the good and bad advice out there about dieting:

Often, we mistrust the advice being peddled – and with good reason. But this shouldn’t lead us to stop caring about what we put into our mouths altogether. One of the best ways to cut through the hype, the fads and the ridiculous promises is to figure out what works for your body.

The article went down well, but was aimed at people in general who have an interest in staying healthy – so I want to draw out some points here which are particularly relevant for office dieters trying to lose weight or maintain weight loss. I’m going to help you think about three key questions:

  • How often should you eat?
  • How much should you eat?
  • How does alcohol make you feel?

How often should you eat?

Some dieticians and nutritionists recommend eating frequently – often suggesting splitting your food intake into five or six small meals a day, rather than three bigger ones. Others say you shouldn’t go more than three hours without eating.

On the other hand, some cultures that take their time over meals and rarely snack (such as the French) have a very low percentage of obesity in their population.

So who should you believe?

I’ve found it best to go with what feels right for me. That usually means a high degree of flexibility; on a typical day in the office, I’d eat breakfast, then a piece of fruit mid morning, a light lunch (usually a sandwich and more fruit), and a snack such as a cereal bar or crispbread either mid-afternoon or when I got home from work. But sometimes I might have a larger lunch, or have fruit for breakfast at home, then a bigger snack mid-morning.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I get hungry if I don’t eat every three-four hours?If so, you’ll be best splitting your calorie intake into smaller meals and snacks in between.
  • Do I like to feel properly full after a meal, then wait until I’ve got a good appetite to eat the next one?If so, try cutting out the snacks.

Either way, what matters is how many calories you consume over the course of a day – not how frequently you eat. In general, though, it’s unwise to let yourself get too hungry; you’ll be much more inclined to overeat once you do get to a meal.

How much should you eat?

It’s tempting when on a diet to cut your food intake as much as possible – surely the less you eat, the faster you’ll lose weight? This is a really bad idea, though, as your body will cling stubbornly to the few calories which you are taking in. If your diet plan recommends 1,100 calories a day but you’re suffering regular hunger pangs, then eat a bit more.

(Eating too little also affects your energy and concentration levels, and makes it really hard to exercise effectively.)

On the other hand, you might find that your diet plan allows more calories than you need – especially if you have a lot of weight to lose. So long as you’re getting at least 1,100 calories per day, don’t feel that you have to eat every last calorie if you’re already full.

Again, this is about learning to trust your body and figure out what works well. Once you finish your diet, you’ll need to maintain your weight loss – which means knowing what the right amount of food for you is.

How does alcohol make you feel?

Some people react more strongly to alcohol than others, but in general, most of us find:

  • Alcohol tends to make us hungrier
  • Alcohol reduces our will-power
  • Alcohol can change our sleeping pattern

You might be able to drink a couple of glasses of wine with no discernable effects. On the other hand, if you’re like me, just a small glass of wine can be enough to make you “snackish” and make those crisps and nuts extra-tempting. If so, you may want to try restricting alcohol to just one or two days of the week.

For some people, a moderate amount of alcohol in the evening helps them to unwind and can help them sleep. Others sleep badly if they drink any alcohol, and often end up waking very early after a few hours of disturbed sleep. How does alcohol affect your sleeping? If you always have a bad night after drinking, it’s probably not a good idea to indulge on a “work night”…

In many ways, the important part of being on a healthy eating plan or diet isn’t to lose weight – it’s to change your habits. The weight loss is just a side effect. You need to learn to pay attention to your body, understanding how much food it needs and what foods are best for you: that way, you’ll be set for permanent success.

(Image above by 尽在不言中)

Don’t miss Friday’s follow-up on “Listening to your body about exercise” … make sure you’re getting RSS updates or email updates (enter your address on the top right of this page).


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