One of the most unfair parts of trying to lose weight is that everyone’s body is different.
The speed of your metabolism can vary widely. Some people have very intense food cravings throughout the day, while others have cravings that are infrequent and go away rather quickly. Some people naturally eat their food slowly, and as a result, they often consume fewer calories without even trying. Others, like me, chow down quickly and don’t give their stomachs enough time to know whether they’re full.
Let’s dive into how experiences vary and your individual options.
Scientists and other health professionals have long wondered whether food cravings were linked to nutrient deficiencies in our bodies. It makes sense from a logical perspective. If certain people experience cravings frequently—regardless of whether they’re actually hungry—their bodies must be crying out for some sort of vitamin or nutrient that’s in short supply.
However, food cravings aren't nearly as simple as we might like them to be. For instance, women are up to twice as likely to have food cravings as men. They're also more likely to crave sweet foods with loads of added sugar. This comfort food often provides little nutritional value and instead offers a bunch of empty calories. If our bodies really are crying out for nutrients, this kind of food is definitely not what they'd need.
Food as a natural reward
In 2015, I wrote about how important it is to consider the mental aspect of weight loss, especially because 90 percent of Americans don’t even consider the power of their brains when it comes to their diet. What if more of us made a concerted effort to get our minds right before we start a diet? It would likely mean a lot more people would reach their fitness goals, as opposed to the 97 percent of us who fail.
The first step has to be reprograming our minds in terms of how we reward ourselves. Eating food causes the release of dopamine in our brains, and dopamine is important to reduce our stress levels, anxiety and depression. It makes sense that meals get attached to this, because when we provide our bodies with the proper fuel, it's easier for them to go about their usual work of providing energy to keep us going. However, we’re all capable of going overboard here, especially when we’re in a bad place mentally.
Stress and eating are part of the self-perpetuating cycle of weight gain. On average, food can (temporarily) reduce our stress levels, but overeating can increase our weight gain, thus increasing our stress. If we try to fight our cravings that are telling us to "eat more; you’ll feel better," we either end up giving in and doing it, or we deny ourselves this dopamine release, causing us to feel even worse!
The answer isn’t to do either of these things. We absolutely have to deal with our own stress, but we have to find creative ways to overcome the feelings stress creates. The facts about stress and eating are this: Stress does induce cravings. People who are under stress eat significantly more calories than those who are not stressed. In addition, women generally experience more stress than men and have more health symptoms related to their stress.
Different levels of stress and different ways of dealing with it
Dopamine is a valuable chemical our bodies produce, but we have to make sure it's linked to more than just the food we eat. Food is the easiest way, but if you're willing to be creative, there are other ways to up your mood. Go participate in your favorite sport and break a sweat, knowing that the so-called "runner's high" isn't limited to running. It's really the result of dopamine released by our brains while we're performing any strenuous exercise.
However, there are other avenues, too. Go to that new restaurant you've been wanting to try. Buy yourself a new pair of shoes or the book you've been wanting. Set goals and benchmarks for yourself. Maybe if you plan on losing 15 pounds, you give yourself a small reward when you reach your 5-, 10- and 15-pound goals. It's all up to you, but having the treat to look forward to does help. If you really want to get serious about rewiring your brain this way, TED Talks are a great place to start.
Weight loss and circadian rhythms
I’ve talked before about the benefits of intermittent fasting, but this health article discusses how important it could be to do the opposite. The article discusses how some people can avoid those pesky late-night cravings by actually frontloading their meals earlier in the day. Which one is right or wrong? It all comes down to the individual. Here’s what I hope you’ll keep in mind:
—Some people do great with intermittent fasting and eat less all day long.
—Other people do great skipping breakfast and lunch, but can’t stop eating late at night.
—Others simply do best if they eat meals at regularly scheduled times, but choose to focus on eating a healthier diet and consuming fewer calories.
In the end, no one can tell you which is best. You have to experiment and see what works for you.
If you’re really struggling, spend a couple of weeks on each method. Write everything down, and I mean everything! Chart when you eat, how much you eat, when you have cravings and how bad those cravings are on a scale of one to 10. Everything. Then, you can start to assess! Yes, it does take a while, but you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, so why not take a little time to figure it out?
Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He's on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at [email protected] with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.