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Brain Battles: How To Win Your Mental Struggles Over Food

By L. K. Regan

We’ve all been there. It’s two in the morning. You wake up, you’re hungry, you head to the kitchen. There are cookies in the cupboard. Do you grab a few, or walk away? Or, it’s Saturday night. You’ve eaten healthy all week, and you’re out for date night with the boyfriend. He wants to order a pizza. Do you go along for the ride?

These scenarios happen all the time, and can seriously derail your efforts to maintain a healthy weight. It’s hard to know what to do when the battle in your head over food starts up. Is there any way to not wind up standing with the freezer door open, staring straight into the face of a pint of ice cream?

To get answers, and a plan, we spoke to Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You. Currently, Manuel is leading the RealJock/Nu4You Weight Loss Challenge, and helping our 25 participants reach their weight loss goals. Here are his suggestions for winning the battle over food in your head:

Clean Up
Why force yourself to rely on will-power? Villacorta says that, “Often people say, ‘I’m going to have willpower!’ But willpower is over-rated. Instead of trying to be strong and have willpower, people need to be more aware of behavior and actions, and their weak points. And the best way to do that is to change your environment so you can succeed.” Villacorta likens this to addiction. “If someone is recovering from alcoholism,” he says, “you don’t put them in a bar and say, ‘Be strong!’” So, if there are certain foods around which you know you can’t restrain yourself, the best idea is not to bring them home to begin with. Start by cleaning out your office and house, and try to get away from the triggering food.

By the same token, you need to make sure that you are stocked up on healthy foods, so that you are not in a constant state of deprivation, and wind up over-eating in reaction. You need healthy snacks, and the time to go shopping for a snack is not once you’re already hungry. So, let’s talk about shopping….

Plan to Shop
Many of us have no set time when we grocery shop. We head off to the store when it’s convenient, or worse yet, when we’re hungry and realize there’s nothing in the house. That leads, Villacorta says, to “chaotic shopping”. Better to pick a time, one that works with your schedule, and plan it into your week. You’ll leave yourself enough time to shop, and again, won’t run off to the store every time you get hungry. You should also make a list for every shopping trip. A list makes you be conscious about what you’re buying. It demands that you think through your meals, and plan many days at a time. And, a list makes you aware of the pull toward impulse buys, and helps you resist them.

Nip It In The Bud
The less time you spend hungry, the less you will over-eat. We’ve talked several times now about ghrelin, the hormone that causes hunger. Well, to keep that hormone in control, you need to eat often. Villacorta has said it before, and will say it again, we’re sure: the best thing you can do for yourself in terms of controlling your weight is eat breakfast, every day, within an hour of getting up, and eat appropriately (an apple, a little cheese) every three hours throughout the day.

Write It Down
“I had a client,” Villacorta says, “who just could not see how often he ate ‘guilty pleasure’ foods. He had an excuse for each one, and so couldn’t understand why he wasn’t doing better. He had pizza on Monday—but hadn’t had it in three months so it ‘didn’t count’. Tuesday it would be doughnuts, for the first time in six months…and so on.” The key to solving this problem of perception? Write it all down. “In this client’s case, I gave him pieces of paper, one for every day of the week,” Villacorta says. “Each time he ate a ‘guilty food’, I had him put an X on the piece of paper for that day. Finally, he got to see how much he did this, how all of these individual meals added up.” If you keep records of what you eat, you can’t lie to yourself as easily, and you can see how often you consume the guilty foods. It will help make you more thoughtful about what you eat—and that is key to getting control over it.

Live Your Life
Still, food is not the enemy. “I don’t see food as evil,” says Villacorta. “I enjoy food a lot—chocolate and truffles, and great restaurants. But I plan that eating, and pick my occasion.” You can eat the things you like, guilt free, if you plan it and make space for it in your week’s nutrition. And Villacorta would like us all to have a less guilty relationship to food. If you happen to love pizza, or cookies, he says, “you can have it—but you need to set limits around it. Figure you will only eat these things once a week, or twice a week.” The problem, he says, is when we are not aware, and just drift into eating. “You want to be aware of inviting the guilty pleasures into your life. And that means, again, having a plan. Look at the whole week’s nutrition, and ask yourself if a given eating is worth it, since it’s going to be your only time for the week.”

Here’s a guideline Villacorta offers: to maintain a healthy weight, most people need to have no more than three “guilty pleasure incidents” per week. To lose weight, you need to aim for just one, and certainly no more than two. But be careful—an incident isn’t a binge. So, a couple of pieces of pizza is an incident; so is a few cookies; likewise a couple of margharitas. If you’re not careful, you could go out for a big dinner and blow all of your “incidents” in one meal. Or, you can spread them out over the week, if that better suits your habits. But either way, regularly having more than three incidents will, in Villacorta’s experience, send almost anyone into weight-gain.

Love Yourself
Many of us use food as a reward. This is not such a good idea, Villacorta tells us. “You had a bad day, you say to hell with it, you order pizza and have a beer,” he offers. “Or, you get a promotion, and you feel great! You decide to celebrate—with pizza and a beer. Good or bad, you reward yourself with guilty food. But there are better ways to reward yourself, ones that won’t hurt your body. Get yourself a massage, take yourself out to the movies, think of something else you like and want.” And, Villacorta reminds us, “It’s not that you can’t have pizza and a beer. But ask yourself—do you really want the pizza because you had a bad day, or just because you want it? And if you want it, that’s fine, incorporate it honestly and thoughtfully as part of your regular week—not as an emotional impulse.”

Take the Final Step
Villacorta tells us that people move through three levels in their relationship to nutrition and weight loss. At the first level, a new client might come in accustomed to eating fast food, junk food, a lot of sugary and processed food, and practicing no portion control. At the second level, after some education and practice, people know to avoid those foods, and instead eat salmon, brown rice, whole grains—they have learned to eat healthy. People at this level will lose weight, for a while. But they will plateau, and at that point, Villacorta says, it’s time to take the final step: portion control.

To stay on top of your weight, you really need to watch how much you eat, even of healthy foods. And this will be particularly difficult when eating out, especially for people who eat out often. For restaurants, Villacorta says, “The more questions you ask, the better. How is this meat cooked? How much are you serving me? They may stare—but they may actually know, and will answer. Portions can get huge, and you would like to know the quantities.” Know what you’re eating, and how much of it you’re eating, for every meal. And remember, write it all down in a record book. This keeps you honest and on-track—and will, down the road, be a great document for seeing how hard you’ve worked and how far you’ve come!