It seems like even though the conversation here is about using nutrition and integrative medicine to support mental health, the topic of weight loss keeps coming up. Certainly, for many of the overweight and obese citizens of the world, doctors are emphasizing more than ever the need to get down to a healthy weight to alleviate health problems like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, joint pain, fibromyalgia and more. In my opinion, however, this is not a good top priority.
Let me preface the rest of this with the reminder that I am not a nutritionist, dietitian or doctor. I’m just a mental health professional with 20 years of dieting experience and research to draw from.
Based on my own experience and what I’ve researched, I think there are six steps you should take before you focus on weight loss:
- Step 1: Eat regularly. (Don’t count calories). Often, when we are told we need to lose weight, we turn to extreme measures, overly restricting calories because we believe what the diet industry says, that all weight loss boils down to “calories in vs. calories out.” That is a gross oversimplification, and will not help you in the long run. We know our bodies need consistent energy via food fuel to keep our blood sugar constant and avoid hypoglycemia (and thus stabilizing our moods). So aim to eat something with protein about every 4 hours. Don’t starve yourself.
- Step 2: Clean up your food choices. Arguably, what you eat matters more than how much you eat. You can eat the same number of calories from a burger and fries or a huge salad with chicken, avocado, egg and olive oil dressing, but only one of those choices will actually help your body function optimally. Getting rid of refined carbohydrates, sugar and toxic oils will help your body repair inflammation, which sits at the heart of most (if not all) neural, immuno and endocrine problems, including mental health problems.
- Step 3: Break the sugar addiction. I remember back when I was a teenager and just starting to put my toe in the world of dieting, I read something that said “fat doesn’t make you fat; sugar makes you fat.” If only I’d had the self-control to cut sugar out of my life at that age! Sugar disrupts just about every system in the body because of the inflammation it causes. It causes weight gain because your body will use the readily available glucose for energy before any fat you eat, and so the unused food energy gets stored in fat cells for later, when you try some extreme dieting and severely restrict calories. Unforunately, in our modern american diet, the combination of high fat and high sugar foods is pervasive and dangerous. This will be the hardest part of your journey to health, but it will be the most powerful.
- Step 4: Start healing your gut. A damaged gut lining or unbalanced microbiome will cause all number of physical and mental problems in your body. Our modern American diet is usually at fault here, but food allergies (gluten, casein) and environmental toxins can also be implicated. Removing the things that damage your gut is equally as important as eating things that heal and grow a healthy gut microbiome. Fermented foods, fiber, and probiotics are all beneficial.
- Step 5: Learn to eat mindfully. Why are you eating what you are eating? What kinds of food do you crave and when? What emotions are you trying to address with food? Are you eating because you’re hungry or need to fuel your body? Can you tell with you are full? Are you always eating mindlessly, on the go because of your busy schedule? Stress has a negative impact on your digestive system. When you eat in a constant state of stress, your body can’t properly digest the food you give it, which means your body can’t use the nutrients to make your body function. The result is more anxiety, digestive distress, brain fog, fatigue and more. Learning how to slow down and actually use food as it is meant to be used will benefit your mind and body.
- Step 6: Get moving. Exercise has long been established as being beneficial for mental health. Our bodies and brains function best when we are moving regularly. You don’t need to run marathons or be a Cross-Fit champion, you just need to use and stretch your muscles on a regular basis. And bonus, exercise helps weight loss.
- Step 7: Ok, now you can think about weight loss. Once the first six steps are firmly established in your life (because there is no quick fix for weight problems), you can start evaluating calories in vs. calories out. Maybe your body doesn’t need that salad with chicken, avocado, egg and olive oil dressing, so you adjust and move the avocado to breakfast instead. You’re still eating quality foods that will benefit every system of your body, avoiding the refined carbohydrates and sugars that inflame and damage your health, and you are regularly fueling your body so that it can function optimally. But maybe you need fewer of those good calories than your neighbor. Everyone is different. You’re now in a position to healthfully evaluate your caloric needs.
I bet you start losing weight around step 3, just by making better choices and learning to think about food in a healthy way. Focusing on weight loss alone is guaranteed to cause stress, which is counter-productive to health and wellness in just about every way. Give yourself grace, and know that healing takes time. That’s what these steps do. They help you heal, mind and body, from a life time of thinking negatively about your body and food in general. Weight loss isn’t the goal; health is. Weight loss will be a happy byproduct.
If you really want to get into the science of nutrition and weight loss, I highly recommend Body Love, by nutritionist Kelly LeVeque. She makes the research and biology very easy to understand, and provides some excellent recipes to make this kind of eating super easy to integrate into your life. The Trim Healthy Mama plan is also a good place to start for those of us who need more structure to be successful in our healthy eating habits. The combination of these two books alone will be more that enough to set you on the right course.