Most people think they know what the best advice is to get control of their weight: eat small portions of healthy food and exercise. Yet, if we look at the science, some different answers come out.
Let’s look at the top five factors that really affect your weight, then think about how best to use this information.
It is really beneficial to exercise on a number of levels. It boosts your mood, improves how your body processes what you eat, and changes how your body looks. However, it isn’t the biggest factor in controlling your weight. There is only so much exercise you can humanly do. +
Unfortunately, our modern high-sugar, high-fat foods pack a huge calorie punch that you don’t have enough hours in the day to work off. So, although beneficial, exercise can never be sufficient to control your weight without bringing some other factors into the equation
Lots of studies have shown a direct correlation between getting too little sleep and gaining weight. That’s the bad news. The worse news is that more and more people are getting by on less sleep than they need, in our modern society. Whether you attribute it to electric lights allowing poeple to stay up/work later, too much screen time before bed, or the high stress and long hours of much of modern life, the fact is there.
It’s definitely worthwhile to take steps to improve your sleep quality and quantity. That might involve looking at your sleep hygiene: avoiding or cutting down on caffeine (that includes chocolate), alcohol and nicotine; not looking at blue light after a certain time; decreasing sweet foods in the evening; make sure your bedroom is as cool, dark and quiet as possible; establish a pre-sleep routine; do something to drop your stress levels (more below on this).
3) What You Eat
Of course, what you eat matters. While food fads come and go at frighteningly regular intervals, and different studies point in different directions, there are some principles which endure. You may not be sure how much red wine is good for you, but you know that a little can have benefits, at least to your body (your brain is a different matter, according to Dr Daniel Amen, who preaches being teetotal). And you know that eating crisps, chocolate and pizza, and drinking sugary drinks (or even sugar free drinks with artificial sweeteners) will do you, and your weight, no good at all.
The best advice is to eat moderately from any natural, unprocessed foods. You may not be able to avoid processed foods entirely (nor want to), but make sure they don’t take over. And the less sugar, the better.
2) When You Eat
More recently, there has been a lot of press coverage, and a lot of scientific research, on the importance of when you eat. Of course, there’s the 5:2 diet, where you restrict your calories to a quarter of ‘normal’ on two days each week. There are also other forms of intermittent fasting, eg. doing a full 36 hour fast once a week, or doing a weekend fast once a month. Another option is time-restricted eating: going at least 13 hours between your evening meal and when you break your fast. It seems like everyone has an opinion, and a scientific study or five to back it up, determining when you should eat for optimum health and weight control.
Certainly, eating last thing at night is seen by almost everyone as a bad idea, and giving your digestive system some kind of a break on a regular basis seems like a good idea.
Stastics on comfort eating and stress eating vary between 25% and 50% of people in modern society. That’s up to 1 in 2 people who turn to food for comfort or to deal with stress! Yet, anyone who has ever done this knows it’s far from effective. The real result is more stress as you feel guilt and shame, and hate your body for not being the weight you want it to be.
Underlying this are a couple of different factors. One is boredom or loneliness. Another is stress and the release of cortisol. There are lots of studies showing that cortisol triggers appetite for fat and sugar, and that it makes it harder to shift excess weight. And, to add insult to injury, even over-exercising can be a stressor that causes the release of cortisol!
By relaxing, you can stop the release of cortisol, and balance your autonomic nervous system. This by itself will help with weight control both at the level of stopping cravings, as well as at a physiological level helping your body to process the food you eat in a healthier way. It will also help your sleep – so finally we have a win-win.
What’s the solution?
With the stress-relaxation axis being perhaps the single most important factor influencing weight, there is finally some good news. There are lots of things that you can do to help you relax. Better yet, many of them can be done in short periods of time.
My top seven picks for de-stressing are:
This is a surprisingly simple technique. The basic idea is that you breath following a three part structure:
First, you breath in through your nose on a count of four.
Second, you hold your breath for a count of seven.
Third, you breathe out through pursed lips on a count of eight.
An added touch is to have your tongue touching the back of your top front teeth throughout, including as you exhale forcefully through your mouth. However, don’t worry if this is overcomplicated. Just keep to the basic count, and everything else is icing on the cake, so to speak.
There is increasing evidence that meditation doesn’t have to take a long time to be effective. In fact, some people even suggest as little as three minutes, three times a day, can have a profound effect. And you can choose from a lot of different kinds of meditation. Here are a few simple meditation suggestions:
1)Watch your breath as it flows in and out. No need to control it or count, just be present with your breath.
2) Imagine yourself in a safe, pleasant place. Make the space feel as real as possible: what would you hear, what would you see, what would you feel, what would you smell, what would you taste?
3) Be present with your actual experience. What can you feel right now? What can you see? What can you hear? Can you taste anything? Can you smell anything? For three minutes (or more) just keep asking yourself those questions, and seeing what comes up.
Take some time to be with other people. At best, this would be face-to-face. Really listen to whoever you are with and acknowledge them. You can also take the time to write a heartfelt text. The point is to truly connect with someone, so make it a mini-love-letter, rather than a mini-rant. Or call someone, just to say hello and find out how they are. We are social animals, and some true human connection works wonders on our mood.
Pick something you enjoy. It could be five minutes of chair yoga while you’re on break, or a longer yoga class. Or it could be dancing, or walking, jogging, skating, weights. Whatever you enjoy. And it doesn’t have to take long, even a few minutes will make a difference to your mood. Moving releases all kinds of natural chemicals to help you feel good, as well as burning calories – yay, another win-win!
Studies show that just six minutes reading de-stresses you as much as meditating. How easy is that to fit into your day?
Taking up a hobby that relaxes you and keeps your hands occupied is a win-win. After all, if your hands are busy, they can’t be putting food in your mouth. Secondly, such pasttimes are meditative, getting you into that flow space where you are challenged just enough to stay interested and relaxed at the same time. There are myriad different options here, for example sketching, zentangle, colouring, knitting, sewing, painting, felting,
This is like an amped-up version of meditation. You are guided, so it’s easier to follow and not get lost. And extra benefits and suggestions can be added in, to improve your immune system, help you lose weight, teach you a new breathing technique, or many more options. To try out a mini-hypno-relaxation, just click on the image below and relax!