“Maybe you’ve trained yourself to view a pint of Häagen-Dazs as a reward because, well, you deserve it.”
Do me a favor. Stop reading this article for a second and listen to the world. Really hear what’s going on.
Welcome back. How’d it go? What did you hear? The people at the table next to you breaking up? Your kids watching something on TV that they shouldn’t in the other room? A distant lawn mower breaking down? It’s amazing what you hear when you concentrate on what’s happening all around you. There are so many stories in all that ambient noise.
Now lets try it again, but this time turn the focus from external to internal. Listen to your body. What does it want to tell you?
Maybe some injury is nagging you or it’s too warm in this room or you’re in love and can palpably feel the butterflies in your stomach. Or maybe you’re just hungry.
As much as I’d like to wax poetic about that love thing, I’m going to talk about hunger. It may seem like a no-brainer: If you’re hungry, you eat. But if America’s burgeoning waistlines are any indicator, there’s nothing simple about it. The human digestive tract isn’t just a fleshy collection of tubes. It’s a wildly complex system linked to, among other organs, your brain, which, in turn, is heavily influenced by hormones, external stimuli, past life experience, and a million other things.
In other words, sometimes your hunger has nothing to do with a need for food. Maybe you’re bored or unhappy. Maybe you have an addiction to refined sugars. Maybe you’ve trained yourself to view a pint of Häagen-Dazs as a reward because, well, you deserve it. That’s not your body telling you what it needs. That’s your brain talking smack. So the ultimate goal is to learn how to truly listen to your body to determine your nutritional needs. Along the way, however, you might need a few tricks. For example, counting calories.
If you want to get fancy about it, a calorie is the energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius.
Huh? I’m already confused.
So let’s try to keep it simple, understanding that, even at their most simple, calories can be a challenge to sort out. Yes, it’s merely a question of calories in, calories out. But to do that, you need to determine the amount of calories in everything you put in your body. You need to know how big a serving size is and keep a running tally of what you consume every day. And if you really want to do it right, you need to manage how many of those calories come from fat, protein, carbs, and fiber. Even if you use a calorie calculator, that takes time, effort and determination.
Then there’s the “calories out” part. What’s your metabolism like? How active are you? Do you climb mountains or did you just win a Golden Spud from the National Society of Coach Potatoes?
So I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’m not a big fan of focusing on calories. That said, it has its benefits. All that counting will teach you about food and its energy value, whether you like it or not. Also, when you write things down, it makes you stop and think about choosing that double cheeseburger w/ bacon.
I would suggest that counting calories is not something you want to do for the rest of your life, but it’s a start. And as you do, really start focusing on how foods are affecting your body and mind. When you had a doughnut and mocha for breakfast, how did morning yoga feel? When you had that bag of chips on your drive home, when were you were hungry again? Once you see how these pitfalls manifest themselves, you’re going to start connecting them with the cues that your body gives you.
Also, when you get a craving, try honoring it in a different way. If you crave sweets, it may be emotional, but it also may be your body crying out for the vitamins and minerals often accompanying naturally sweet foods, such as the vitamin C or potassium you’ll find in many fruits. So eat an apple or a banana instead.
Similarly, cravings for savory foods may be a need for sodium, but I’ve often found they signal a need for protein, so try some edamame or a little low-fat yogurt.
Over time, you’ll find yourself needing to track calories less and less because you’ll just kind of know what to do. Your taste buds and your “emotions” will change. Then, when you repeat the exercise we tried at the start of the column, your body will tell you something that you just don’t hear often enough nowadays.