What is the first thing many of us do when the stress starts to build up? We pile up our plates—and we usually do it with junk food. Nothing stimulates our cravings for sugar, salt, and fat like a stressful event, but attempting to "eat your way out" is not the right approach. An entire book could be devoted to helping a person craft his or her own antistress diet (and many have been; see the Resources section for some recommended reading), but it's possible to get the most dramatic benefits from making a few small changes.
First, eat breakfast! Remember Mom telling you how breakfast was the most important meal of the day? Well, she was right—but not all breakfasts are created equal. Breakfast, like all your meals and snacks throughout the day, should be a blend of carbohydrates and protein, with a little bit of fat thrown in. A good rule of thumb is to compose each meal or snack by "fists." Here's how it works: Each meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) is made up of one fist-sized helping of carbohydrates (pasta, bread, cereal), one fist-sized helping of protein (eggs, meat, poultry, fish, tofu), and another fist or two of fruits and vegetables (an apple, a banana, a side salad). Each snack (one each between breakfast and lunch, between lunch and dinner, and between dinner and bedtime) should be built the same way, but the total size of a snack should be no larger than one fist.
Using this simple "fist" method does a few important things for your diet. Eating this way helps to control blood-sugar levels, regulate appetite, and maintain a high resting metabolic rate throughout the day. Eating this way also forces you to consume more fruits and vegetables, something the National Cancer Institute has been telling us to do for a long time (they recommend a minimum of five daily servings of fruits and vegetables). Fruits and veggies are also rich in the vitamins and minerals our bodies need at higher levels during stressful times.
Over the years that we have conducted the SENSE program, we have refined this general "fist" guideline into a more precise framework for eating that we call the Helping Hand approach. It still uses your hands as a portion-control device (helping you gauge the quantity that you eat), but it also places some emphasis on the quality of the foods in your diet (for optimal metabolism).
Eating for Quality and Quantity
Hundreds of clinical studies show that if you eat in "X" manner, you'll lose weight—but that weight often comes right back, and it comes back more often than it stays off. There are also millions of personal testimonials to support the weight-loss benefits of the various miracle diets, no matter how bizarre they may seem (including all manner of patches, potions, and pills). Without too much effort, it is easy to find diets that promise weight loss by restricting a person's intake of a particular food (such as those "bad" carbohydrates), and others that restrict intake of all foods except those on a certain "approved food list" (which invariably tends to be an arbitrary list with little basis in credible scientific evidence).
All Diets Work…for a While
Let's emphasize one very important fact right here at the start: Virtually any diet program will help you lose weight. Whether we're talking about Atkins, Protein Power, Zone, Ornish, Pritikin, South Beach, Paleo, or any of the myriad other choices out there, they will all help you lose weight. Why? Because they all restrict total energy intake to about fifteen hundred calories per day. Do that (restrict calories) on a consistent basis for any length of time (more than a few days), and the vast majority of Americans (or non-Americans eating a "modern American diet") will shed pounds with very little effort.
It's when you get to those final ten or twenty pounds of desired weight loss that most diets become less effective—and in some cases these diets actually become counterproductive to your weight-loss efforts. Why? Because most of them target only a single aspect of your metabolism to help you lose weight. And while controlling one aspect of metabolism may be sufficient during the early (easy) stages of weight loss, it becomes woefully inadequate in the later (more difficult) stages—when your weight loss begins to plateau, eventually stops, and often starts to reverse toward weight regain.
Those "Last Twenty Pounds"
It goes without saying that the later stages (those last few pounds) are the hardest stages of weight loss—and the ones that cause us the most physical difficulty and mental anguish. Because weight loss gets harder and harder to achieve as we move closer and closer to our goal weight, we need to simultaneously target multiple metabolic systems to arrive at our ultimate goal (recall the 3S approach outlined earlier in the chapter). For the vast majority of us, the metabolic systems that are most closely associated with those last ten to twenty pounds involve cortisol (the primary catabolic stress hormone), testosterone (the primary anabolic hormone), and HSD (the cortisol amplifier in fat cells that leads to more fat storage).
The SENSE approach to eating is not about following a strict meal-planning regimen, nor is it about restricting any foods or categories of foods. In fact, it's not much of a "diet" at all. Most of the people who have tried it can confirm that they often eat more food while following it—and they still lose weight. SENSE teaches you how to balance your intake of carbohydrates, protein, fat, and fiber in a way that considers both the quantity of food (as all weight-loss diets must do) and, even more importantly, the quality of those foods. Specifically, quality refers to what you eat, and quantity refers to how much you eat. Don't worry about trying to stick to eating only certain items from a long list of "approved" foods (because all foods are fair game) or avoiding other foods on some "banned" list (because no foods are prohibited).
Quality: What to Eat
Step 1—Consider Carbohydrates
General rule: Foods that are more "whole" (in their natural, unprocessed state) are preferred choices.
Carbohydrates, in and of themselves, are not "bad," but the form of carbohydrate that you choose will determine your body's metabolic response and your likelihood of storing that food as fat. Here are some examples of this principle in action:
- A whole apple is less processed than applesauce, which is less processed than apple juice—so the apple is the best choice, the applesauce is moderate, and the apple juice is least preferred.
- All whole fruits and vegetables are a good choice, and thus can be used to "balance" a food that is less preferred (such as a juicy Italian sausage sandwich at the company picnic—see below).
- Whole-grain forms of high-carbohydrate foods are always preferred over forms that use highly refined grains. When choosing breads, pastas, and crackers, always look at the label for "whole-grain flour" or "whole-wheat flour" and choose these products instead of ones that simply state "wheat flour," which indicates a more highly refined flour rather than a whole grain flour.
- When you can't examine a label (such as when eating out), choose grain products that are thicker, chewier, and heartier—such as "peasant breads," with added seeds, nuts, and fruits—rather than "fluffier" and "softer" breads, which indicate highly refined grains.
- Choosing whole, unrefined fruits, vegetables, and grains over processed versions of these foods will naturally boost your fiber intake, another important part of the SENSE approach to eating (see Step 4, below).
Step 2—Provide Protein
General rule: Any form of lean protein can be used to "complete" a refined carbohydrate.
- Protein and carbs are the "yin and yang" of nutrition: They have to be consumed together for proper dietary balance (which falls apart when either one is excluded or inappropriately restricted).
- Leaner sources of protein are always a better choice than fattier cuts (choose 97 percent lean ground beef instead of 85 percent lean).
- A bagel for breakfast is not necessarily a "bad" carbohydrate, but it is not the best choice (especially if it's made from refined, white flour instead of whole-wheat flour). Your bagel can be made "better" from a metabolic standpoint by adding some protein—perhaps in the form of smoked salmon or a scrambled egg. The combination of virtually any protein with a refined-carb food balances the meal into one with a better overall metabolic profile—meaning that your body will handle the calories more appropriately.
- Some foods might masquerade as protein—such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, kielbasa, cheese, nuts, and peanut butter—but their very high fat content means that we treat them as "added fat" and consider how they affect our overall intake (discussed in Step 3).
Step 3—Finish with Fat
General rule: A small amount of added fat at each meal is a "metabolic regulator."
- A bit of added fat—in the form of a pat of butter, a dash of olive oil, a square of cheese, or a handful of nuts—helps to slow the postmeal rise in cortisol and blood sugar, which in turn helps you control appetite and enhances fat burning throughout the day.
- Your choice of pasta as a side dish (but not as a main meal—see the quantity discussion in the next section) is an "okay" choice, but you can make it a better choice by selecting whole-grain pasta (instead of the typical highly refined forms) and/or by topping it with a delicious olive oil, garlic, and basil sauce. Even better, mix some fresh vegetables into the sauce to further boost the nutritional content of the entire meal.
- Your child's lunch of white bread with grape jelly is a metabolic disaster (you might as well inject sugar straight into her veins and fat into her adipose tissue), but you can boost the nutritional content and her body's ability to metabolize her sandwich by adding a bit of peanut butter, insisting that she wash it down with a glass of 1 percent milk, and switching to whole-wheat bread (a tough switch with many kids, but well worth the try).
Step 4—Fill Up with Fiber
General rule: Choosing "whole" forms of grains, fruits, and vegetables (as recommended in Step 1) will automatically satisfy your fiber needs.
Like fat, fiber helps to slow the absorption of sugar from the digestive tract into the bloodstream. In this way, fiber can also be considered a "metabolic regulator" to help balance cortisol and blood-sugar levels at each meal or snack. The fiber content of whole foods also provides a great deal of "satiety"—that is, foods high in fiber make us feel fuller for longer, so we are less likely to feel hungry and to seek out snacks.
Quantity: How Much to Eat—The "Helping Hand" Approach to Eating
At the same time that you are evaluating the quality aspects of your food choices, you should also be considering the second part of the nutrition equation: quantity (otherwise known as "portion control"). When we talk about food selection for weight control, we know without a doubt that size matters! Luckily, Mother Nature was looking out for your waistline when she equipped you with a handy pair of built-in portion-control devices. You probably know them as your hands. This fortunate turn of events means that we have no excuse to overeat, because we can use our hands to guide us in the quantity part of the SENSE program. It works like this:
General rule: Whenever possible, select "whole" and "least processed" carbohydrate sources—but only eat a certain quantity of them.
Fruits and vegetables (except potatoes, which count as concentrated carbs)—Choose a quantity of fruits and vegetables that roughly matches the size of your open hand. Select brightly colored fruits and vegetables for the highest levels of disease-fighting carotenoids (orange, red, yellow) and flavonoids (green, blue, and purple).
Starches, i.e., bread, cereal, pasta, and other concentrated carb sources (including potatoes and French fries)—Choose a quantity that is no larger than your tightly closed fist (a small side dish of pasta, potato salad, a dinner roll, etc.).
General rule: Whenever possible, avoid consuming carbohydrates (whether whole-grain or refined) without added protein and fat.
Lean proteins such as eggs, low-fat yogurt, low-fat milk, lean ground beef, steak (with visible fat trimmed), fish (any), chicken, pork chops, etc.—Choose an amount that approximately matches the size of the palm of your hand. (Note that I said palm. I am not referring to your entire open hand.) Keep in mind that this portion is likely to be only about half the size of the standard portions served in many American restaurants—so be prepared to eat half and bring the other half home as leftovers.