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Why asking “what diet will help me lose weight?” is asking the wrong question - Sasha High MD

Oct 01, 2020

Hello my friends. I want to talk to you about diets for weight loss, and how to select the right diet for you.

I realized my blog post could have been misinterpreted and so I want to make sure I clarify something. Last week, I discussed how to lose weight without feelings of restriction and deprivation. And my thesis was that deprivation is a feeling caused by our thinking, not by whatever eating plan we choose. And that we need to manage our minds and the thoughts that generate the feelings of deprivation.

However, and this is a big however, this thesis only applies if you choose a reasonable eating plan!! So let me clarify that there are truly terrible diets out there. Diets that are severely restricted, very low calorie diets, diets that recommend eating only one food in soup form for two weeks, diets that involve drinking a chemically-engineered shake that isn’t even real food three times a day, diets that require injections of unknown vitamins to not experience the detrimental metabolic effects that are happening… I was not suggesting that you should follow these diets and not feel deprived. These truly are deprivation diets because remember the definition of deprivation is that you were lacking in something considered to be essential. And these diets require you to sacrifice essential nutrients and calories in order to lose the weight.

So what I was talking about was coming up with a sustainable eating plan, perhaps in consultation with a Registered Dietitian, one that meets all of your nutritional needs. And then once you’ve chosen to follow this eating plan, that’s when your brain offers allllll this resistance. That’s when it becomes so important to manage your thoughts.

So how do you find the right eating plan?

There are tens of different diets out there, all touting their benefits, all promising the best weight loss. Paleo, vegan, keto, low carb, Mediterranean, low calorie, low fat, Cabbage soup, whole 30, South Beach, Atkins… Trying to figure out which “diet” is going to help you lose weight and keep it off can be confusing. And almost always, “dieting” fails. And that is because asking which diet is the best for weight loss is actually asking the wrong question. A better question is: how can I eat in a way that fuels my body with the healthiest foods possible, brings peace and freedom to my eating, and is sustainable for the longterm? And then how do I stick to it?

I prefer the term Eating Plan to diet. Because in our society, the word “diet” usually means something that you’re going to do for the short term to achieve a specific outcome, and then go back to your old habits. But eating is a behaviour that we need to do every day of every week of every month until we die. So thinking about eating behaviour as a short-term intervention makes absolutely no sense at all.

What I propose when choosing your eating plan is just understanding a few simple scientific facts.

  1. Hormones matter. The main one you want to consider is insulin. Many, many people in North America have hyperinsulinemia and insulin resistance. That means our insulin levels are too high. So you want to find an eating plan that lowers insulin levels.
  2. Neurotransmitters matter. The main one to know about is dopamine. We are wired to want food. That was protective when we were hunters and foragers. We needed some motivation to go out and put energy into seeking food. So dopamine is that motivational neurotransmitter that gets us out of the comfort of our cave, making the effort to hunt for food. Whole foods give us a little bit of dopamine - just enough to motivate us to eat for survival. But our current food environment is engineered to give us a LOT of dopamine. So we get too much reward from food - and that’s why food is pleasure, food is entertainment, food is comfort. Our highly processed food environment results in a lot of dopamine signalling. Over time, with chronic dopamine stimulation, there are fewer dopamine receptors in your reward brain so you need more food to get the same amount of pleasure - and for some people this results in food addiction. But it’s not all foods that will do this - whole foods will not. You don’t get addicted to chicken breast or broccoli or eggs. Only processed foods have this effect.

So what stimulates insulin production and what gives a lot of dopamine? Flour, starch and sugar.

If you want to boil it down to the simplest eating plan - it would be: make sure half your plate is vegetables, fill up on protein, don’t be afraid of healthy fat, and avoid flour, starch and sugar. It’s simple, it’s not gimmicky, it doesn’t have a fancy name. You can do this whether you’re plant based or a meat lover. You can do this if you’re following a Mediterranean style diet or vegetarian.

It’s whole foods with a lower carbohydrate slant. But the only reason we need to call it “low carb” is because our North American diet is so high carb that this seems low. But this is how humans ate before we engineered processed food-like substances, so it’s not a new diet trend, it’s more like an old-school way of eating that goes back to the basics.

So that’s the WHAT of the eating. And quite honestly, that’s the easy part. Most people know what to do, it’s just they’re struggling to do what they know.

And that speaks to the WHY, the WHEN and the HOW of eating. And this is where mindset work comes in. This is the psychology of eating, understanding your brain and your thoughts and learning to manage them. It’s exploring the tricks that your brain tells you to take you off course. And that’s where you need to work on overcoming the thoughts that drive the feelings of deprivation.

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