THERE’S A RATHER NICE LITTLE CHOCOLATE in the kitchen drawer and you might have it later with your coffee, but you’re not particularly bothered. For some of us, locked in a longstanding unhealthy relationship with food, this feels like an impossible dream. We might sweat blood at the gym or eat healthily all day, but after all that effort we still come home and sabotage our own best interests by wolfing down something ‘naughty’.

Caught in a dieting trap? Don’t despair. Do things right and you can lose weight permanently and liberate yourself from yo-yo dieting for life! | Photo: Tonya Hester

WHILE WE RECOGNISE the dreadful irony that many South Africans will never have a weight problem because they simply don’t have enough to eat, the fact is that waist circumferences have increased by 50% in the past 10 years* and many people’s lives are blighted by an unhealthy relationship with food. We asked two Cape Town experts why we find it so hard to maintain a healthy weight or diet when we need to, and how we can start to become our body’s best friend…

* International Journal of Obesity, 2008, J Wardle and D Boniface
A) Ronel de Villiers, clinical psychologist:

‘Dieting is a swear word in my consulting room. It conjures up pictures of limp lettuce on a plate, of obsessively counting calories and anxiously praying the scale will pretty please budge in the ‘right’ direction. Starvation, deprivation, morally superior good girl, angry girl. Fat, furious and rebellious: ‘Blow the diet, I’m off to fast food heaven. Load the trolley, I’ll start again next week or after the visitors have gone or maybe after that dinner party… How am I going to get into my dress? Oh, I hate myself! No will power.’ Civil war and torture chamber in one.

Sound familiar?  Why all the yo-yoing of weight, the self-sabotage? Dieting implies that we’re looking for a quick-fix solution, without a sustainable change towards more balanced eating habits, exercise and lifestyle. So often we create a ‘good food – bad food’ tug of war, beating ourselves up for having eaten the ‘forbidden fruit’ or yearning for what is deliciously ‘naughty’. But it makes way more sense to think along the lines of ‘often food’ and ‘infrequent food’, in terms of nutritional value. By all means, have that scrumptious slice of chocolate cake once a week, but do make an occasion of it and preferably away from home. Savour every bite.

Emotional eating is a big culprit. We eat not because our body needs fuel, but because we’re feeling sad, bad, angry, frustrated or bored and in need of comfort, entertainment or a pat on the back. We create a tea party in our mouths because life itself does not feel sweet enough. Or we try to numb and suppress these uncomfortable or perceived-as-unacceptable feelings by stuffing them down with food.

Journalling and keeping a mood log can be the first steps in learning to identify emotional triggers for overeating. This is key in becoming more adept at dealing with the underlying emotion. Interestingly, another clue to emotional underpinning lies in the food texture we crave: creamy = comfort, crunchy = frustration/anger, spicy = fatigue/boredom. Develop a different menu of ways to meet your emotional needs: run, phone a friend, choose to eat a crunchy apple rather than chips.

Often we feel so noble after exercise that we overestimate how much fuel our bodies have burnt. A nutritionist once laconically remarked to a ballet dancer, ‘By all means have your daily chocolate bar if you enjoy climbing Table Mountain twice a day!’

In our fast-paced lives, we often eat on the run. It’s a double whammy: not only do we not taste, savour and enjoy the food, we also don’t give our body’s satiation signal a chance to kick in. So we eat more than we need, with less pleasure. Eating in front of the television, computer, game console or while reading are classic examples of automatic/mindless grazing. Rather get up, walk to the kitchen, have a glass of water (you might be thirsty, not hungry). If you’re still peckish, finish eating in the kitchen before returning to your book or laptop.

Be mindful of portion size. Use a smaller plate

Our bodies aim to keep things stable and on an even keel, trying to maintain our weight by regulating our appetite. When, through dieting, we consistently take in less fuel than we expend, our bodies respond by making us hungrier. This also occurs when we put on weight: when our body fat goes beyond a certain point, it can confuse our appetite signals and actually make us hungrier, too.

Intriguingly, sleep deprivation leads to an increase in our levels of ghrelin, the body’s short-term hunger messenger, so we’re hungrier than usual, particularly craving carbohydrates and sugars. Likewise, when we burn the midnight oil, our bodies often crave carbs in an attempt to manufacture serotonin to put us to sleep! Eating simple carbs creates a sugar spike with heightened energy, keeping us awake. Next time you have the munchies, consider if you’re actually hungry or simply bone-tired and in desperate need of rest or sleep.

Embrace your body as a dear friend and wondrous masterpiece of engineering. Don’t compare yourself with anyone else. Discover your body’s natural weight range and lovingly stay on speaking terms with the closest pal you’ve ever had!’

Most diets fail but you CAN lose weight and keep it off, says Rev Dr Lesly Uys (below)
B) Rev Dr Lesly Uys, therapeutic & pastoral counsellor:

‘Most diets fail, but the good news is that it is possible to lose weight and keep it off and, more importantly, to create a healthy relationship with food.

The reason we’re overweight is rarely a physical condition. Far more likely is that our emotions have got the better of us. It’s easy to associate weight with food, to blame the way we eat and exercise (or not!) for making us fat and to leave it there. Many of us also struggle with self-criticism, telling ourselves things like, ‘I can’t go out looking like this. People will think I’m a pig’. But if we’re serious about permanently maintaining a healthy weight, we need to pinpoint our emotional associations with our weight and do something about them. If we gain control of our thoughts, we can start to feel new, helpful emotions. This leads to eating a lot less and more healthily.

Our thoughts create emotions that control how we behave. For example, if I believe that I’ve totally blown my diet because I had a chocolate, I’ll behave in a way that’s consistent with this distorted thinking pattern. I’ll probably throw my hands up in the air in despair and give up my good intentions to become more healthy. If, on the other hand, I recognise that my goal is to become healthier over a period of time and that I won’t eat perfectly overnight, when I eat that chocolate I’ll be more able to see that I ate 75% healthily as opposed to blowing it!

It’s also good to be aware that food doesn’t actually reduce anxiety any more than alcohol does. It may mask it for a while, but it will always reappear until we tackle the issues that keep us in the problematic cycle of weight loss and gain.

For some, it helps to think of weight as being body fat kept in storage. We can actually choose to clean out this ‘storage’ and make some space! Reflect on the idea that every kilogram of unwanted fat you have may actually be the weight of last year’s disappointments. For example, if you were lonely, mentally view those kilos of fat as kilos of loneliness. The same applies for resentment, anger, sadness or fatigue. Psychologically, this apparently bizarre concept of emotions and weight can be really helpful and make dieting much easier. Instead of focusing on how you’re giving up certain foods which you think of as a treat, you can now think in terms of losing unhappiness by the kilo.

Try self-help. Google ‘distorted thinking’ and ‘how to raise your emotional quotient’

Read a ‘mindful eating’ book and try a mindfulness exercise like this one. Sit at the table with a plate of food in front of you. Focus on the variety of colours (try to have as many as possible) and textures. Become aware of your surroundings and be mindful as you pick up your fork. Then, just before you place the food in your mouth, be aware of the aroma and take a moment to breathe it in. Next, think about the food as it passes over your lips. How does it feel? Cold, hot, smooth, rough? What do you notice as you slowly begin to chew your food? Savour the different flavours and taste as many as you can. As you swallow the food, what thoughts pass through your mind? Before you take your next forkful, be mindful of whether you’re eating from the same food group or a different one. Is the flavour stronger or more subtle? And so on. Look at eating as a slow-motion process in which you’re aware of each and every move, flavour and sensory experience.

To maintain good eating habits, put substitutes in place for the food you’re saying goodbye to. Food is a temporary distraction. Within an hour or two, your stress or boredom will still be there, plus the disappointment and remorse of having failed because you binged or ate sugary treats. So now’s a good time to compile a list of what you’d like to do when this moment strikes. Make sure your list is done before the event occurs and stick it to your fridge or somewhere visible. It’s your list and you need to engage in activities that you either find fun or will give you a sense of achievement. This can be anything from going for a walk in the forest to organising your clothes cupboard or the photo album. How about some other form of exercise, going to a movie, enrolling on a course or even exploring your spirituality? Remember, it must be something you’ll find either exciting or rewarding.

If none of this works, consider consulting a therapist or dietician. Your emotional and physical well-being is too important to ignore!’

Dr Uys’s Top Tips
  • Exercise for one hour every day! Weight training burns more calories than you can imagine, keeping your metabolism raised throughout the day and turning you into a fat-burning zone! Ladies, remember to work with light weights so that you can tone − heavier weights may make you bulk up
  • Don’t have junk food in your home. Make it as difficult as possible to get hold of
  • If you’re dieting, have one ‘eat-whatever-you-want’ day a week so that you don’t feel deprived forever
  • If you’re in a really bad cycle you just can’t get out of, seek the help of a professional dietician or counsellor. It’s about making better life choices that will give you optimal health benefits – not only immediately, but also as you age
  • As far as possible, eat vegetables with every meal – the more, the merrier!
  • Once you’ve reached your ideal weight, don’t even consider going back to your old lifestyle!
Change your look in an instant…

Tips for women by Cape Town image consultant, Kyla Blackwood-Murray

  • Belt up Adding a belt is an affordable way to transform your look. Always wear it in a way that compliments your body shape: a belt 2-3 cm wide suits most of us
  • Rock that block! Create an hourglass by vertical colour blocking: wear a solid bold colour flanked on both sides by a vertical contrasting colour
  • It’s a wrap The wrap dress embraces and compliments every body shape from athletic to apple
  • Feeling faded? Pimp those brows Shaping and colouring your eyebrows can take years off your age. Either use an eye pencil to colour them, making light brush strokes in an upward motion, or tint them with a shade that’s close to your natural hair colour or slightly lighter if you have dark hair
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