It’s been a stressful year. So was last year. Next year will be, too. Speaking of which, how’s that waistline? Have we turned Bulking Season into a permanent fixture? Stress and weight gain are like peanut butter and jelly and bacon and banana and butter. Unwanted weight gain can be boiled down to overeating and underactivity. Let’s talk about the why and how we got there, and then I’ll break down some tips to get it back under control.
When we are stressed, most of us tend to gain weight. Sure there are those weirdos that “forget to eat” and lose their appetite when swamped or distracted. #leanpeopleproblems . For the rest of us, when we don’t get to eat at normal meals, we OVEReat when we finally sit down. IF we even sit down. (Cut to sessions of standing by the open fridge scarfing foods that rhyme with schmeanut butter).
If it’s not this version of binge eating, it’s mindless snacking while we work, or drive, or sit, or watch our show. We chase the momentary dopamine hit from pleasurable food. The crunchier, sweeter, saltier, fattier, the better.
Insulin Regulation: we have a problem.
To add insult to injury, when we are busy/stressed/putting out fires we skip the gym. Hell, we skip 10-15 minutes of doing anything... but we will come back to that. Physical activity falls off of the schedule if it is not made a firm priority.
Everything altogether keeps stress hormones like cortisol high, which simply put, can tell the body to hold onto fat. Ok, you get it already. Get on the strategeries. (Move that bus! Move that bus!)
1. Track your Calories
Years ago, I was methodical about tracking everything. This allowed me to play with macronutrient ratios and assess my weight and build. By doing so, I quickly learned what meals/snacks were high calorie vs. low, what foods had what amount of protein and what extra unwanted calories came with what I perceived to be healthy (usually packaged) foods.
Some people love this as their lifestyle, but it’s not for everyone long term. I support periods of tracking foods to really learn what you’re taking in for awareness and learning to truly understand nutrition labels. #MyFitnessPal is a common app that is free to download.
2. Use an Eating Window
#IntermittentFasting is quite a fad right now. There are many types: 16/8, 20/4, #WarriorDiet, #OMAD (One Meal a Day), #AlternateDayFasting, 5:2 … you can search them all. The proponents say these diets promote #autophagy (body cleaning out toxins and dead tissue). There is some debate about this, as others claim you need to ensure a caloric deficit AND you may sacrifice muscle.
Like everything, the dose matters and circumstances do, too. We are all different: genetically, physically, stress levels, lifestyle. Some people will tend to overeat when they eat their one meal a day. Yes, you can crush 3-6K calories in an hour. This can lead to an eating disorder, or at least disordered eating (hand raise). It can make you neurotic, just like counting calories.
Before you shut down and run from the idea, let me suggest you try elements of this non-dogmatically. Trying a 12-16 hour fast is not going to kill you. You can also practice intermittent fasting.. intermittently. Maybe one morning you aren’t hungry. Great. Don’t eat out of habit. Go about your day and have a plan of what heathly snack of meal you will eat when you are ACTUALLY hungry. Next day you have a #crossfitwod early in the morning. Well- fuel up!
Let’s say you want to stop eating each day at 7 PM and not eat until 9 AM. Establishing that rule will help create accountability and prevent snuggling up with that bag of chips or ice cream on the couch (GAME OVER). Through practice you can recognize you are just bored or gluttonous and skip it to help your goals.
By cutting down your eating window, you can curb the amount of food and calories you ingest.
3. Listen to Your Body
This goes in tandem with the above. We are creatures of habit. Some of us love routine and will eat whether we are hungry or not. We will carb up whether we are working out that day or not. We will feel compelled to eat when others eat. When was the last time you went to a restaurant with a friend and just had some tea or a side salad?
Think critically. Stop and ask yourself if you are hungry. If your stomach is growling- it might just be empty. Drink some water. Did that help? Cool, good to go. Maybe a handful of nuts and a pause will be enough, rather than eating the whole jar (hand raise again). Don’t eat just to eat, even if it feels weird with social norms. Listen to you body, keep your goals in mind, and practice discipline.
4. Eat Real Food
It’s not about #paleo or #thisdiet or #thatdiet. Those can be great tools to experiment with. However, they are often too rigid for most people. I’ve scoured a paleo list and made a dessert with dates and honey (ate the whole batch), I’ve found “keto-friendly” peanut butter cups (ate the whole box). You are obeying the somewhat arbitrary "rules" you set in order to achieve "health" but inadvertently stumbled at its expense.
We know that eating actual food (unprocessed or minimally processed) helps us feel full and stay full. Think meat, eggs, fruit, veggies. Think rice, beans, even high quality dairy if you tolerate it. Some of these things might not be part of your #faddiet, but they generally come from nature and you will tend not to overeat them. Most things that will go bad are GREAT- this means they're fresh. (Watch out for nuts and dried fruit, a bag is like a crate of 50 caliber-calorie rounds).
There are theories that tie in food quality and nutrients with satiety. Essentially, your body will want to keep consuming food until it gets the nutrients it needs. Well, with packaged food, you’ll never get there so you'll never stop until your belly hurts.
5. Prioritize Protein
If real food keeps you full, the next step up is focusing on protein. Protein in each meal slows digestion and makes you satisfied. It is more thermogenic- meaning it takes more energy to break it down, which is good for caloric burn.
Protein is an essential nutrient- it is used to build all the cells in your body. It aids muscle build and recovery which is also tied to higher caloric burn. Protein can help control blood sugar and insulin regulation- which means less sugar stored as fat and fewer cravings (which lead to overeating).
#TedNaiman has supported the #ProteinLeverage Theory- which is that we eat until our protein requirements are hit. A twist on what I brought up in the last section, but essentially if you hit your protein, you’ll be satisfied which will prevent overeating.
6. Experiment with Low Carb or Low Fat
I talk about being non-dogmatic, as going full-bore keto or low-fat can be too rigid for many. It might be going well for a while but when we fall off the wagon, we usually fall off hard. Thus, play around with both and see how you react to them. Some people might feel real stable doing lower carb through the day. They might find they add carbs on lifting days, or else they feel weak and tired.
Others might do great eating lots of fruit, staying energized and relatively lean. Again, everyone is different; find what works for you. Playing with periods or days of one vs. the other can also help metabolic flexibility- (Dr. Mike T. Nelson)- keeping your ability to burn both carbs and fats prime.
7. Avoid High Fat/Carb Combos
Scientists for Big Food companies work hard to create the most addictive food-like products. Think Doritos: seasoned with high sodium and chemical flavors, crunchy from deep frying, providing an amazing texture. Chips on the savory side, cookies on the sweet side. You can’t eat just one (true for me)!
These foods obviously don’t exist in nature- outside of nuts, no foods really pack a lot of fat and carbs together. This makes them hyper-palatable AKA fan-freaking-tastic in your mouth. Your body wants to eat as much as it can, because if this was a wild state, you would never pass up such a caloric opportunity. (Calories = Survival)
Recognize these foods really need to be moderated. You will tend to have better control when you lean toward carb OR fat rather than both for your meals. Eg. Lean ground beef and rice OR fatty steak and avocado.
8. Eat for Your Activity
Our nation doesn’t have a weight loss issue. It has a “keeping weight off” issue. We lose tons of weight each year just to gain it back. Why? Because the fitness industry – like all marketing- preys on us. They prey on our fears. Our insecurities. They prey on selling a dream with minimal commitment: fast results.
How do you get fast results? You make them hard and unsustainable. Eat Less, Move More. Makes sense with calories, right? The problem is you cut calories and then have nowhere to go. Good bodybuilders know this- the experienced ones (usually with a good coach) can whittle down their intake SLOWLY over months. Actually, just about as slow as possible. This keeps their energy higher and muscle preserved. On top of that, at the end, the good ones will reverse diet (slowly increase) food so it does not all become fat.
See- our bodies are super smart. If you slash calories and do two-a-days, you WILL lose weight at first. Then, your body thinks it’s in trouble. You’re running from a tiger, fighting off other tribes and barely eating. Store Fat! But you aren’t eating much. Fine- burn muscle for energy and all food consumed should be stored as fat! See a problem?
Result- less muscle, stubborn fat (skinny fat look) and tanked hormones. Yeah- your body knows it should not be reproducing if you’re running from predators and stuff. And that’s what you’re telling your body. Then when you eat more (ie cheat meals), it will shuttle this all into fat if it can.
Dr. Jade Teta promotes the idea of Move More, Eat More- coupled with Move Less, Eat Less. Have your energy intake correlate with your energy output. Work out hard- eat well. Sit around all day- don’t eat a ton.
9. Practice Mindfulness
Tied in with all of the above- the power of your mind will govern all. As I mentioned, we can get a rumbly stomach when we aren’t actually hungry. We can feel light headed if we aren’t accustomed waiting longer than 2 hours before snacks and we constantly graze. Everything can be adapted to- we need to keep our goals and priorities in mind as a compass.
Take moments and ask yourself if you really need that cookie. Do you really want it? Does the temporary mouth pleasure line up with your goals? Is it a dry stale Chips Ahoy? Skip. I know what that tastes like- it’s not that good. I’ll hold off.
Is it your buddy’s wife’s prized peanut butter chocolate brownie? Your favorite thing? Have you been dialed-in lately? Well? Eat the damn brownie! Recognize food should still be pleasurable and social at times. You need not/should not surround it with shame. Make the decision that you will really enjoy it and preplan that you intend and WILL eat one. And you will be satisfied; you will enjoy it. And you will/shall not regret it.
10. Commit to Movement and Rest
We’ve talked a lot about food. Your consumption is directly intertwined with exercise and sleep/rest/recovery. If you overeat, you don’t feel like working out. If you under-sleep your hunger and cravings will be through the roof. You also won't be set up to burn fat. See where this goes?
If you COMMIT to habits that support exercise and rest you will set the right foundation for success. I’m not talking big obligations. I’m not talking "no days off" gym-crushing mentality all the time. I’m talking about 10-15 min every day of movement- as a nonnegotiable.
This could be a walk around the neighborhood with your dog (your dog will thank you). This could be foam rolling while your coffee brews and doing some slow motion push ups and stretching. These things DO make a huge difference, and when life happens and you don’t make it to the gym- you did something.
For sleep, set a firm bedtime. Create routine for winding down- for what time the screen turns off. Some practices like reading, sipping tea, putting on blue light-blocking glasses can be significant. Create some basic steps and commit to them.
There you have it- lots of info to digest (couldn’t help myself). I truly hope this was helpful for you and your health journey. If you need guidance or coaching, send me a message (email, IG) and we can talk about options that will fit your budget. Be well and stay gritty.