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The World’s Best Appetite Regulator
The World’s Best Appetite Regulator
I recently had a conversation with one of my clients who is trying to lose weight. She’s 56 years old, smart and professional—and she’s carrying around 25 extra pounds that just won’t budge no matter how hard she exercises or how little she eats. I asked her a very simple question: “Is there a time when weight loss comes naturally for you?” She thought for a moment, then responded with a wholehearted, “Yes.”
It turns out that whenever she goes on a vacation for several weeks, she drops about 10 pounds without trying and without doing anything different other than relaxing more, having a few extra margaritas and enjoying food without counting calories. Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? The key, of course, is not the margaritas—it’s the relaxation.
Many of us, in an effort to lose weight and feel healthy, try our best to control our diet. The challenge, though, is this: Our best dietary efforts often generate stress, which goes hand-in-hand with increased appetite and extra weight.
Here’s an example. A common weight-loss strategy is to skip meals or to eat as little as possible, especially at breakfast or lunch. This sounds like a sensible strategy to the logical scientific mind (fewer calories means less weight gain); but as it turns out, nothing can be further from the metabolic truth.
In findings published in the journal Neuron in August 2011, researchers in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary's Faculty of Medicine found that when there’s not enough food, the body responds with a stress signal that temporarily causes a functional rewiring in the brain. This impairs our ability to regulate appetite and instead causes us to desperately want food. What’s fascinating is that these changes are driven not by the lack of nutrients, but by the stress that results from the absence of food.
Think of a time when you were dieting and skipping meals. It wasn’t easy, was it? For many people, the more we restrict our food intake, the more anxious we become, and the more stress response we create. Numerous studies have shown that the physiologic stress response, when present day in and day out, signals the body to produce more insulin and cortisol. These two hormones will signal the body to store fat and not build muscle. Notice that these are the exact opposite effects dieters seek.
In addition, the hormone cortisol, when chronically elevated, desensitizes the body to pleasure. What this means is that the pleasure we would normally receive from a nice piece of chocolate cake is less available to us because of the physiologic stress response. We actually need to eat more of the cake in order to experience the amount of pleasure that allows us to feel fulfilled and complete. From here, it’s easy to wonder if there’s something wrong with us, or question why we have such little control over our appetite.
Relaxation to the rescue
Consult any basic textbook in physiology and you’ll learn that the optimum state of digestion, assimilation and appetite regulation occurs during the relaxation response. In this physiologic state, our parasympathetic nervous system is well activated and our gut functions at its best. During the relaxation response we naturally breathe more deeply; blood flow to the digestive tract is at its apex; enzymatic output in the gut peaks; and the brain is at its fullest capacity to distinguish taste, pleasure, aroma, satisfaction and the visual aspects of a meal. All of these synergize to let the body-mind know that it’s time for the meal to end because the appetite has been satisfied. Relaxation regulates our desire for food effortlessly.
At the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, the practitioners we train have remarked time and again how their clients who previously struggled with appetite and weight had profound breakthroughs once they practiced the long-lost art and science of relaxed eating.
Here’s a simple technique that we teach: The next time you sit down to a meal, allow yourself to take five to 10 long, slow, deep breaths. Let your lungs fill naturally—don’t work too hard—and delight in the experience of breathing in beautiful vital oxygen. Deep breathing can shortcut the stress response in less than a minute and send the body into parasympathetic dominance (the physiologic relaxation response), which is exactly where every eater wants to be when it comes to regulating appetite and weight. Can you think of a simpler or easier nutritional strategy for losing those extra pounds?
By: Marc David
Marc is the Founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, a leading visionary and teacher in Nutritional Psychology, and author of the classic and best-selling works Nourishing Wisdom, The Slow Down Diet, and Mind Body Nutrition. He has held senior consulting positions at Canyon Ranch Resorts, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, the Johnson & Johnson Corporation, and the Disney Company. He lectures and consults internationally, and his work has been featured in a long list of media outlets. Learn more at psychologyofeating.com.
September 20th, 2012