Welcome to Day 9, you real food wizard! My happy dance is in progress!
I trust by now you see this Challenge isn’t about deprivation. This is big picture stuff.
So many people fall victim to the idea that if they could only change their behavior, then they could change their diet and finally get healthy. Their way of thinking goes something like, “If I made time to cook, then I would eat healthy.” It’s the change the behavior to change the food to change biology way of thinking, and, problematically, it relies on willpower.
But not you. You’re clever. You’re changing your food first so that a lasting behavior change will follow effortlessly.
Oh, you didn’t realize you were doing that? Guess I spilled the beans!Your Future Self
What is real food?
We’ve learned that marketing and advertising work. We are suggestible and impulsive. Other people influence our food choices, and the reason we eat isn’t always logical. But let’s say we eliminated all of those factors. Would the choice of what to eat right now be a decision of freewill?
How food drives behavior
Hormones are chemical messengers released in the body. Hormones tell cells what to do and in turn drive behavior.
Insulin is one hormone that has a strong effect on behavior. Eating rapidly-absorbed starch or sugar (common in processed food) drives blood glucose and insulin levels up. When insulin is high, it promptly escorts circulating glucose into fat cells for storage, which means the rest of the body can’t use the glucose as energy right away. The energy deprivation that results is especially problematic for the ol’ command center, the brain.
A high insulin level also blocks the effect of another important hormone, leptin. Leptin is released by our fat cells when fat stores are full (after eating). Its purpose is to communicate to the brain that we are satisfied by a meal, energy has been stored for later use, and we can stop eating now.
When insulin is high, it blocks leptin’s message from ever reaching the brain. The brain never recognizes that our fat cells are full and we should stop eating. Without receiving the satiety signal, the brain thinks the body is famished.
In this condition, the brain would typically orchestrate the conversion of stored energy into energy that can be readily used, like blood glucose. However, high insulin levels block that process too. Energy that has been stored in fat cells can’t be released. The fat cells stay fat while the brain continues to starve. The only recourse the brain can take is to drive you to eat more.
So, high insulin:
- stores energy as fat
- deprives the brain of its primary energy source,
- prevents satiety,
- prevents fat cells from releasing energy to fuel the starving brain, and
- makes you hungry.
When we inevitably eat more, insulin rises further and fat storage continues, making it a vicious cycle of increased consumption, increased fat storage (weight gain), a false sense of starvation, and hunger.
This dysfunctional cycle is especially concerning today because insulin levels are double what they were in 1975 thanks to our increasingly processed diet, which delivers large doses of rapidly-absorbed starch and sugar with minimal fiber to protect us.
What you eat right now is no isolated decision. Your preferences are driven by your hormones, which are influenced by what you ate previously. If your brain is in starvation mode, it’s not so much a matter of what you want to eat as it is a matter of what your brain wants you to eat. And the answer to that is anything that will raise blood glucose rapidly–in other words, processed food.
But all is not lost. What you eat now can also have positive effects on your hormones and your behavior.
Your hormones work properly when you eat real food. Real food is high in fiber and low in sugar. When we eat real food, our blood glucose does not spike as rapidly or as high, so the body can release a smaller, more appropriate dose of insulin.
If you can prevent your insulin from being chronically high, you can prevent the vicious cycle that follows. The false sense of starvation and metabolic dysfunction will resolve. Your normal hunger and satiety cues will return. You may even lose a few pounds.
As motivated as you are to eat right, you can’t fight your hormones with willpower forever. Sooner or later freewill will succumb to biological drive. The key is shaping your food environment so that your hormones work in your favor instead of against you. Once your hormones are working for you, sustaining you real food habits will only get easier.
How to change your biology to change your behavior
Eat more real food and less processed food. Look at you already doing that!
Normalize meal times.
Keep real food snacks handy. Know yourself. Recognize when you get fatigued, stressed, or ravenous. Pre-empt these feelings (or at least catch them early) with a real food snack like nuts. You’ll prevent the decision fatigue or extreme hunger from setting in and wrecking your behavior.
Recognize what foods satisfy you until the next meal time and what foods don’t. Eat more of the former and less of the latter.
- If you’re feeling famished 90 minutes after a meal, the composition of that meal likely spiked your insulin and drove the energy you consumed into fat storage.
- Have a snack, and then learn from that feedback. Take note of what you ate that made you so hungry such a short while later.
- Look for themes and avoid foods that make you feel that way.
Eat all four macronutrients–fat, protein, fiber, and carbohydrate–at each meal to feel the most satisfied. Fun fact: nuts and seeds check all of those boxes.
Keep the following in mind about grains.
- Both the type (whole or refined) and the amount of grains you eat can affect your glucose response and therefore, your insulin response.
- When you eat grains, make them whole grains. The fiber in whole grains helps to protect against blood glucose and insulin spikes.
- Keep in mind that one serving of grains is about 1/2 C or 1 slice of bread.
- In 1992 the Food Guide Pyramid recommended 6 to 11 servings of grains daily as a means of reducing our fat intake. We’ve since learned that the low-fat diet trend that followed the recommendation morphed into our processed food diet, low in fiber and high in refined grains and sugar. That processed food diet led to the metabolic problems we face today.
- Unlike previous editions, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines no longer recommend a cap on total daily fat intake. Welcome healthy fats back into your diet liberally and consider cutting back a little on grains. Doing so will free up more room for vegetables on your plate, help you feel more satisfied (from the fat and the extra fiber), and result in a lowered insulin response.
Exercise. Your doctor tells you to exercise. The benefits of exercise are in the news nearly every day. Deep down, you know you should exercise. So why is the IRN bringing it up in a food challenge?
- Exercise improves your insulin sensitivity, and that’s huge. If your cells are more sensitive to insulin, then your pancreas won’t need to produce as much after a meal, which means your insulin response will be lower. Insulin sensitivity is a really good thing.
- Exercise helps you manage stress. Exercise lowers your cortisol level (the stress hormone). Cortisol raises your insulin level too, so reducing it helps to reduce insulin. Exercise is an antidote to stress.
- What kind of exercise should you do? We are, admittedly, not experts in the exercise arena, but we suggest starting with whatever is sustainable for you. If it’s walking, then walk. If it’s playing sports with your kids, then play. If it’s a DVD workout in the comfort of your own home, then move the coffee table and get to it!
Take control of your biology right now. Rid your kitchen of processed food.
(It’s not so bad, you know. We could have asked you to do this on Day 1).
Of course, this request is bigger than food. You’ll also be giving up:
- always feeling hungry,
- brain fog,
- lack of control over what you eat,
- feelings of guilt or frustration when you fail to eat according to your intentions, and
- metabolic dysfunction.
It is well to yield up a pleasure, when a pain goes with it.Publilius Syrus
Visit the Challenge forum. Tell us about the biggest influencers on your food choices. Got any advice for the rest of us in case we encounter them too? Share it!