Feel it’s harder than ever to resist temptation? Obesity experts blame these 21st-century saboteurs:
Studies show images of indulgent foods stimulate our hunger hormones, says Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, author of The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work. Back in the Stone Age, we needed this physiological response to survive: See food, want food, get food. But in today’s world, where it’s virtually impossible to drive a block or surf the net without encountering delicious food images, this evolutionary response works against us. Every time we see a scrumptious shot, it activates a switch in our brain that pushes hunger hormones into our bloodstream.
The Fix: Being aware of it is the first step to avoiding it. Have healthy snacks on hand for when you get the urge to munch: roasted almonds or carrots and hummus.
Stressful situations require all our brainpower, and there’s less left over for everything else, says Dr. Alain Dagher, a neurologist at McGill University in Montreal. This includes regulating other tasks, like food intake. Then there is the evolutionary link between stress and hunger. We once needed energy (calories) and adrenaline to deal with stressors that came in the shape of wild animals, not mean bosses. Today, our response is the same, resulting in both cortisol (the stress hormone) and ghrelin (the appetite hormone) being released, increasing appetite. Additionally, says Dr. Joey Shulman, nutritionist and owner of Shulman Weight Loss Clinic in Toronto, you crave sugar when you’re stressed because it releases feel-good serotonin, and this makes you more likely to reach for high-calorie sweet treats.
The Fix: Mindfulness is key. Acknowledge the stress trigger and choose healthy foods to combat it — ones that will satisfy your sweet tooth while filling you up. Combos that are high in protein and low in processed sugar do the trick, such as Greek yogurt and blueberries or a sliced apple and a tablespoon of peanut butter. Exercise is also a good way to manage stress because it lets off steam and lowers stress levels naturally.
It’s easy to fall under the spell of Tinseltown when it comes to body image, says Timothy Caulfield, author of The Cure for Everything: Untangling the Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness and Happiness and who is writing a new book on the impact of celebrity culture. We use Hollywood’s skewed views of attractiveness (thin and thinner) as our own beauty barometer. But Caulfield cites studies that show we’re more likely to stick to a plan when we’re doing it for meaningful reasons — good health and joy of exercise — than for appearances’ sake. Hollywood warps our thinking in other ways, adds Freedhoff. Look no further than The Biggest Loser. “It crystallizes the world’s attitude toward weight management. If you want it badly enough, you’ll make it happen, which requires an incredibly large amount of suffering.”
The Fix: Ignore it all, say the experts. It’s fun to follow celebrities’ lives, but don’t get caught up in it because it’s not a real or sustainable model for healthy living. Caulfield says it’s not constructive to focus on esthetic changes: People will have more success thinking about the intrinsic benefits of exercise and healthy eating, including how they make you feel. “And, ironically, if healthy habits are sustained, the esthetic changes will come.”