What if I gave you the following assignment: you are to sit by this old-school wood stove and keep the fire roaring for 24 hours non stop. The only materials you can use to fuel the fire are gasoline, newspaper and tiny twigs.
You’d better have a BOATLOAD of gas, newspaper and twigs and don’t count on being able to get anything else done! You’ll be right by that wood stove allllll day long, constantly fueling it. Sure, the fire will burn hot but as soon as you stop adding fuel, it won’t last long, right? A ridiculously time-intensive and inefficient task, no?
That’s pretty much the equivalent of how we’re fueling our bodies when we eat diets rich in processed foods, wheat, grains and other garbage carbohydrates. There’s no question that carbohydrates provide fuel for our bodies. It’s true. They can increase our energy quickly just like gasoline, newspaper and twigs can provide quick, powerful fuel for a fire. However, as quickly as they provide fuel and energy, it’s gone. It burns hot and fast. Just like the fire burns out when that quick-burning fuel isn’t replenished, we start to burn out shortly after consuming these junk carbs and processed foods.
What does that feel like? Low energy. Hunger. Cravings, especially for carbohydrates. Mood swings. Irritability. Lack of focus. Sound familiar? So what do we do? We eat more junk carbs!! We feel that energy surge again and are momentarily satisfied until it fades and we’re back to feeling like trash.
To avoid this, we need to focus on fueling our body intelligently. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being hungry and I certainly don’t like feeling overwhelmed by cravings. I purposefully choose foods that will satisfy my hunger, keep me satiated for hours and reduce the likelihood that I’ll experience cravings later. For me, that means emphasizing healthy fats, non-starchy vegetables and animal proteins. Fat is an incredibly energy-dense fuel, which means it’s going to curb my hunger and keep it at bay for a long time while maintaining my energy levels. Non-starchy vegetables are the “volume” component of my meals. I’ll often eat 3-4 cups of veggies like Brussels sprouts, greens, broccoli or cauliflower with a meal. I never walk away from the table feeling hungry!! Like fat, protein is a slow-burning fuel source so it’s going to fill me up and maintain my energy level for hours while also reducing the chances that I’ll experience cravings later.
If you want to burn fat and not be miserable (hungry, tired, cranky) while you do it, you’ve got to focus on fueling your body intelligently. That will look different for all of us, but some of the principles will be the same – especially as it relates to avoiding garbage carbohydrates from things like processed foods and grains. The other intricacies you’ll have to play around with. I limit my carbohydrates to either post workout or my evening meal. My breakfast meal is primarily fat. I get the majority of my protein at lunch and dinner.
Find what works for you. Pay attention to your hunger. What types of foods satisfy it? Pay attention to your cravings. When are you most likely to experience them? Can you reduce them with specific changes to your diet or exercise? Where is your perfect balance of sanity, satisfaction and success? Find that sweet spot and then tweak as you go.
I want to help you break out of this crazy carbohydrate cycle. I want to help you break your carb addiction. I want to help you overcome cravings and constant hunger. I want to help you beat the bloat that chronic carbs can cause and start to learn all the skills you’ll need to lose fat and KEEP IT OFF. And you know what? I don’t want to wait until the New Year. I want to start now. For free. I want to help you identify smart carbohydrate strategies and navigate the holidays without weight gain (and maybe even some fat loss!!).
A few weeks ago I wrote an overview of Metabolic Effect’s concept of buffers and triggers. It’s a powerful tool that genuinely redefined the way I look at food choices for fat loss. To read my overview of buffers and triggers click here. To check out my buffers and how I use them, click here.
Today we’re going to take a deep dive into triggers. Triggers sabotaged my weight loss success for years before I even learned what they were. I would be truckin’ along on my latest diet and BAM! I’d be totally derailed by something seemingly innocent like a mini pack of M&Ms on a coworker’s desk. That tiny little indulgence turned into a cascade of sweets, snacks, extra bites and all out binges.
Metabolic Effect defines a trigger as a food that causes negative changes in hunger, energy or cravings. I’ll take that a little further to say that for me, it’s a food that negatively impacts my self-control and goal-focus. Introducing a trigger food pushes me over the thin line from “I’ve got this” to “I’m out of control”. The extent of damage a trigger can do depends on the day, my mood, my hormone balance and my environment but one thing is for sure: I’m much more successful when I avoid my triggers.
Before you can avoid your triggers you’ll need to identify what they are and how they impact you. When I hear people talk about their triggers they’ll often use phrases like “One I start, I just can’t stop” or “every time I allow myself a taste of that, a spoonful turns into dipping into the jar every hour for the rest of the day!” or “I can’t keep that in my house, I have no control when it comes to that!”.
What are the foods that make you feel that way? I shared last week that common triggers include nuts or nut butters, salty/crunchy snacks, alcohol, dairy products and pretty much any processed snack food. My triggers have changed throughout my weight loss journey but at this point, my triggers include (but certainly aren’t limited to!):
Nuts or trail mix
You might look at that list and roll your eyes. You might be thinking, oh come on, those are totally harmless! Don’t get me wrong – eating Oreos or ice cream or Pringles would certainly open Pandora’s box for me. But triggers are often things that you think would be OK and help you to your fat loss goals but actually derail you. For me, if I have a box of protein bars in my house I might feel like one is an acceptable snack until all of a sudden I’ve eaten 4 and I feel like crap. Or a handful of almonds is a great fat loss snack but I’m almost never able to stop at a handful. I’ve found that triggers are most dangerous when they’re fat loss foods to most but a hand grenade to you.
(TRIGGGGGER!!!! My husband’s snack drawer of trail mix! Ugh. STAY AWAY!)
Remember, triggers can change over time and you might find that as you get further along in your fat loss journey a trigger may not longer set you off and you can in fact start incorporating it regularly or even using it as a buffer. On the flip side, a food that was safe harbor might become a trigger. The key here is to pay attention and most importantly, be honest with yourself. I love nuts. I love trail mix. I could convince myself to eat them every day because sure, they aren’t “unhealthy” but I’d only be fooling myself and keeping my fat loss goals at bay.
Cravings are powerful sensations, aren’t they? I had one the other day for s’mores. I wasn’t hungry at all, in fact, I had just finished dinner a few minutes earlier. I was watching TV and there were s’mores on some (evil) commercial and while I’m sure I had seen the commercial before without the cravings trigger, as soon as I saw them they were all I could think about. I played it through in my mind “Well, I don’t have anything to make them but I could totally run out to the store and be back within 10 minutes. I could roast the marshmellows on the grill. Or hell, I could keep it simple and pop them in the microwave. Oh man, that melty chocolate and the gooey marshmellow with the crispy sweet graham cracker! And girl, you’ve been working hard. Taking a night off from discipline might actually help you….”
I wasn’t hungry but I was battling my mind over a craving. Cravings are a strong desire or urge which arise from the pleasure center of our brain. While they are largely emotional and psychological, there is also a strong biochemical component. When you experience a craving (or any strong feeling of desire) dopamine surges through your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (think signaling molecule) that influences the pleasure/reward cetner of your brain, making you feel feelings of pleasure and excitement. At the same time, stress hormones are released. This combination explains the strong desire plus sense of urgency and immediacy that you experience with cravings. It’s not just that we lovvvvve s’mores (though I do!) – that overwhelming urge, desire and need is largely biochemical.
Many people (myself included) lose the battle of will against cravings because they don’t understand how to fight back intelligently. I first started to understand this concept a few years back when I read Metabolic Effect’s book The Metabolic Effect Diet. It’s an amazing resource for this kind of stuff!
Here are some strategies you can use to beat the cravings without losing your mind (or increasing your pants size!):
Make sure you’re eating enough protein. Cravings are associated with deficiencies of several amino acids (building blocks of proteins) so consuming adequate protein will help prevent those cravings. If your cravings are still out of control with consistent protein intake, considering supplementing with tyrosine, tryptophan and/or glutamine.
Notice behavioral patterns around cravings. Do most of your cravings come at night when you’re watching TV? Maybe you experience them most when you’re bored in the middle of the afternoon. Once you’ve identified the pattern, insert a new activity in that time period. Instead of watching TV, take a walk or a bath. When you feel that mid-afternoon boredom, do a crossword puzzle or a quick blitz workout of 20 squats, 20 pushups and 20 sit-ups. Cravings are largely habitual so put the work in and figure out a new habit.
Get enough sleep. You will see that with just about every fat loss struggle there is, sleep will help. Sleep is incredibly restorative. It balances our hormones, including cortisol (a stress hormone) and this hormonal balance helps keep cravings at bay.
You’re gonna love me for this one! Eat chocolate. Not just any chocolate! This is not a case for the Hershey bar in a s’more (oh girl, if it was, I’d be alllll over it!). We’re talking about rich, high quality dark chocolate that is 65% cocoa or higher. Without going crazy over the science (you can read more here) the bottom line is that small amounts of this rich chocolate releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins. This gives us that same blissful sensation we can get from indulging a craving without the stress response, guilt or added calories. You can either mix up a couple tablespoons of cocoa powder with hot water and stevia for a cocoa drink, add the cocoa powder to a protein shake or enjoy a small square or two of dark chocolate.
The next time you get a powerful craving take a minute to reflect on what’s going on. Make note of your hunger and energy. Make note of the time of day and what you’re doing. Make note of what the craving is for and how intense it is. Identifying patterns is going to be a critical part of making progress along your fat loss journey. Evaluate if your protein intake was high enough over the past couple of days. Did you get enough sleep? Go for a relaxing walk to help lower those stress hormones and fix yourself a warm cocoa drink when you get back.