“I hate my body. I’m really uncomfortable in my skin. My whole adult life has been spent thinking about it. I think about it all day long. I’ve done a thousand diets. I’ve really ruined my metabolism. I’ve got not self confidence. In order to fix that, how many carbs do you think I should be eating?”
Sound familiar? It does to me – I’ve heard versions of this conversation literally hundreds, if not thousands of times in my clinical practice over the years and was reminded of it in a recent Robb Wolf podcast. The internal dialogue that accompanies these conversations is often one of self-loathing, disappointment and a sense of failure that they’ve not “managed” to successfully reach a weight or body shape that they deem ideal. These thoughts come from these deep inner workings of the brain that have been ingrained for years. Decades in many cases.* Is a 12-week diet and exercise programme able to suddenly change this? You probably don’t need me to tell you that it’s a tough ask, no matter how many carbs are being prescribed, or how much protein is on your plate.
It’s important to note, though, that adopting a minimally processed approach to eating and stripping away most aspects of the diet that drive cravings and an insatiable appetite is certainly part of the process. These hyper-palatable foods drive blood sugar up and then sends it plummeting, causing a physiological stress response that can create panic and anxiety around food. In addition, when we eat these foods we are at the mercy of the food industry, who spend billions of dollars researching the exact ingredients required to create a product that hits the pleasure centre of our brain and makes us want to continue to eat them long after we’ve satisfied our caloric requirements. Not only does a diet that by default is higher in fat, protein and vegetable fibre help stabilise blood sugar and prevents the inevitable crash, the additional nutrients that a real food diet provides in bioavailable forms (such as B vitamins, zinc, b vitamins, magnesium) are all cofactors in the production and breakdown of neurotransmitters – both processes that are important to optimising brain chemistry and mood, and our ability to think clearly and respond in a calm and measured manner to the situation at hand.
So, while diet plays a role, it’s not the only place we go and not the important one. As I see it, being dependent on a programme can leave you vulnerable and exposed when life intervenes and for whatever reason you can’t follow it. Don’t get me wrong – I love structure and I know that many people rely on that to help remove the decision making around food – that’s why I’ve developed my online system after all! However, most people in my position also dig deeper and provide education, support and guidance for lifestyle and not just diet, recognising that you can’t just prescribe food choices in isolation of sleep, stress and activity guidelines. The outcome being, our job is complete when people no longer need us. For people embarking on a weight loss programme when the underlying problems aren’t acknowledged or addressed – physical and psychological – or other lifestyle factors aren’t considered, then patterns of behaviour built up around these will always supersede any effort to change food intake. If I had a dollar for the number of times I talk to people who share that they ‘slipped up’, ate a biscuit, decide they were a complete failure and then demolished an entire packet, well I’d be able to buy a Vitamix instead of collecting true reward points on my Visa card. I think mindfulness and meditative practice of some description is required to turn the more favourable eating pattern, which is almost a surface layer (though necessary) and turn it into something concrete and foundational.
Meditation rewires the brain. For real. And while the word “meditation” might scare you, this changing myelination in the brain improves connectivity and eventually can help change thought patterns. However, you’ve got to know you’re thinking these things in the first place. So much of what goes on in between our ears is below the level that we are even aware of. Do you know we make 250 food decisions in a day? I counted the ones I was aware of and came up with roughly 28 of them. That leaves close to 90% of the decisions made that outside of my consciousness – yikes! And I’m no different from anyone else. I know that doesn’t sound possible, but take riding a bike for example. It is something that as an adult, we can just do even after years of not going near one. We may wobble a bit, feel a little unsure as we push off, but once we settle in and feel balanced enough, we are off as if we’d never had a 20-year hiatus, despite not thinking about every pedal turn, body lean or turn of the handlebar. Imagine being this guy though, attempting to ride a bike that, when the handlebars turn left, the wheel goes right, and vice versa. Despite his obvious confidence that he could master it in an afternoon, it took 8 months for it to feel like it was a natural thing to do. Changing our thought processes and behaviours around food, how we eat and our self-perception are no different to this – both the conscious ones (“I can’t fit my pants! I’m a whale!”) and those we are unaware of, such as automatically heading to the pantry and grabbing a handful of nuts when arriving home from work.
Meditation can help change both thought and behaviour patterns around food, body image and self-perception. Getting people to do it though is so hard. Give them a meal plan or exercise schedule and they will follow that to the letter. However, when I suggest they spend 10 minutes a day with Headspace, it’s a different story. It makes people uncomfortable as I’m asking them to change how they interact with their environment and the people in it. It’s also not an immediate tangible outcome. It can’t be measured on a scale, or by a measuring tape – so the results are less obvious, and not as swift as a 1200 Calorie diet over 6 weeks. And I am asking them to find 10 minutes each day where they feel they are already squeezing 27 hours into the 24 available. It’s one more thing that must be scheduled on top of an overwhelming calendar. Have I sold you on it yet? However, we want positive thoughts around yourself and good decision making around food to be as automatic as brushing your teeth. Of course, it won’t happen overnight, and meditation doesn’t solve the problem by itself, but doing a meditative practice that helps you figure out when you’re thinking (and why you’re thinking it) is a necessary first step. From here, you begin addressing the factors that are preventing you from making progress long term – rather than focusing solely on the food, which is merely a symptom of the problem.
So where to? There are several practices that can help, and everyone is individual as to which would suit them best. However, an app is an accessible place to start and can be done wherever you are. In addition, it’s just a few minutes a day rather than 90 minutes three times a week. I think frequency could be as important (if not more important) than duration, especially as you’re creating the habit. Like anything, giving it a good go (rather than just a cursory 2 or 3 times) is necessary to evaluate whether something is having an effect. The important thing is to prioritise it as you would brushing your teeth. A few of my favourite are Headspace, Calm or Brainwave App – commit to these for 30 days, and keep a journal to describe changes to how you feel with regards to the meditation – it doesn’t have to be detailed, perhaps a few key words so you can reflect back on your experience and determine if it has had any effect. These 10 or so minutes you spend now could free up so much of the clutter in your head, it will make you feel like you’ve brought yourself at least three times as much. Now, this isn’t going to happen within that 30-day timeframe, but it will begin the process – habits are built up over a lifetime, so it can take months, if not a year or two, to really change. But if you’re like anyone I’ve met, you will notice benefits after that first month if it’s going to be your thing – and hopefully in such a way that will motivate you to continue.
*Imagine all the things that could have been done if the mind wasn’t occupied by ‘does my bum look big in this?’ or time wasn’t spent googling ‘get rid of cellulite.’