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For many, maintaining a healthy weight is no small task. It requires rigorous sessions at the gym, bland meals, self-inflicted periods of starvation (I am looking at your intermittent fasting!), and at times, strange concoctions like cayenne spiked lemonade. No wonder people give up on diets so often!
Then there are the lucky few that seem to stay thin with little effort. I am sure you know some people like that. They seem to eat whatever they want, never go to the gym, and yet remain thin. We like to call them “skinny fat” to feel better about the situation. The truth is, most of these individuals are not clandestinely hiding fat stores where no one can see. They are also not all genetically blessed. Most exhibit behaviors and habits, that naturally balance their energy intake and expenditure, resulting in effortless leanness.
How do I know this? I married one of them. When I first met Rene, I was jealous of his “incredibly high metabolism.” The man eats foie gras regularly and likes to use an entire stick of butter when cooking! Me on the other hand… I was in the effortfully thin group at that point in time. If I went so far to look at Rene’s beloved pasta carbonara, five pounds appeared on my rear end. I worked out almost every day, did tons of cardio, and counted every single calorie that I consumed. It kept my weight down, but I thought about food constantly and obsessed about the scale.
Today, that has all changed. Believe it or not, I discovered the secrets of the effortlessly thin and want to share the top 5 of them with you! They have truly freed me from an obsession with diet and exercise and given me the body I always wanted. After years of observing my Dutch husband and living in Europe, I realized that the problem was not my genes, but rather my mindset and programed habits. These tips, and more like them, have not only transformed my life and relationship with food, but also those of countless clients as well. If you want to stop dieting and learn to listen to your inner nutritionist read on…
1. Count Bites and not Macros
I cannot think of a more effortful way to lose weight than by tediously calculating ones daily caloric intake and macronutrient ratios. For most people, this is not a sustainable or enjoyable way to manage weight. How about instead of tracking every little particle of food that you eat you simply count your bites? If you chewed every bite at least 15 times, you would slow down your eating, get more enjoyment out of food, and improve your digestion. Also, research shows that people who eat at a slow pace tend to weigh less (Hurst Y, 2018) (Maruyama K, 2008). By eating more slowly, you will naturally decrease your food intake without even realizing it.
2. Eat Real Food
Michael Pollen said it best in his incredibly insightful book, In Defense of Food. “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” If you read the book, it’s clear that he is talking about real food, the way nature intended us to eat it. We are talking about fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, meat, and fish. Nature did not intend for us to drink fruit juice or eat deli meat stuffed sandwiches for good reason. Let’s take fruit juice as an example. By pressing the juice from the fruit, you change how the body digests what you are consuming. While you do get most of the nutrients, you lose the fiber which is important packaging. It slows digestion, leaves you feeling full, and keeps blood sugar levels steady.
Mother Nature is a smart lady, and effortlessly thin people respect her by keeping their intake of food made in a factory to a minimum. When they do indulge in it, they enjoy a small portion. There is one picture of my husband when he was a boy at a birthday party. Him and his siblings had been allowed to drink soda. While this is a completely usual scenario, there is one aspect that is unusual. The size of their cups is the miniscule size of a shot glass! In the Netherlands, kids are given unhealthy treats, but they are given them in very small quantities. From a young age, they were taught that a little goes a long way. It’s not about complete avoidance, but about awareness and moderation.
3. Live an Active Lifestyle
If you go to the Netherlands, where obesity levels are far below those in the US, you won’t find people logging hours at the gym. It’s not that the Dutch don’t exercise, it’s that they have found ways to incorporate it into their daily life. They walk a lot, take the stairs, play sports for fun, and ride bikes everywhere. They spend far less time behind the wheel of a car. If you track your steps and daily calorie burn, then you know that you expend way more energy on the days that you walk a lot. That’s a much more enjoyable way to burn an extra 500 calories than spending a hard hour on the elliptical.
Another great way to burn calories without exercising is to play with your kids! Why is it that so many parents are glued to their phones while their kids play on the playground? If you joined in that game of tag or kicked the soccer ball with them, you would get great exercise and spend quality time together. And you can get creative here. For instance, I love to float my kids over me in airplane (like the photo above) and then let them sit on my back while I hold plank. Ten minutes of that and my core is thoroughly exhausted and my kids are thoroughly giggling. Win-win!
Spending time being physically active and having fun is also relaxing for the mind, which is important to maintaining a health. Stress can be a serious roadblock to weight loss as it drives up cortisol levels and promotes belly fat storage. Stress also makes us more likely to emotionally eat and crave foods that aren’t great for us.
4. Hari Hachi Bu
The Japanese have a saying, Hara Hachi Bu, which teaches that you should stop eating when you are 80% full. It makes sense that this would be a smart approach, since overeating can lead to weight gain, low energy, and digestive distress. This practice originated in Okinawa, one of the world’s most renowned blue spots. Okinawans don’t “work” at being thin, and have very low rates of heart disease, stroke, and cancer and a relatively long-life span. Their eating habits clearly contribute to their impeccable health.
So how do you know when you are 80% full? The key is to take your time when eating and slow down. It takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to digest food and send a signal of fullness to the brain. Slowly eat a reasonable portion of food. Once you feel satisfied, put your fork down. As my Dutch mother-in-law likes to say when she has had enough to eat (not when her plate is empty), “genoeg is genoeg!” which means enough is enough.
5. Eat with all Six Senses
We have different types of hunger, not just the rumbling stomach kind of hunger. We also have eye, nose, mouth, and mind hunger. By eating with all our senses, we satisfy the body and mind on a deep level. When we fail to satisfy all the different forms of hunger, we tend to keep reaching for food, never feeling fully satiated.
You probably have the tasting part down. At least I hope you taste your food! But do you also listen to the sound your food makes? Remember the scene in Ratatouille when the French chef listens adoringly to the sound of fresh baguette crunching beneath her fingers? Sound can amplify the eating experience. The same goes for feel, smell, sight, and mind. When we feel the food in our mouth, we can note its texture, moisture level, and density. The smell of food can get our tummies rumbling before we even see it. If you doubt eye hunger exists, just look at Instagram and Pinterest. We love to look at food! Mind hunger can be satisfied through gratitude and an appreciation of where your food came from and the distance it had to travel to reach your table.
To conclude, there are some great lessons to be learned by observing the effortlessly thin. It is likely, that they are adhering to at least some of these principles! Try them out and see how you feel when you eat mindfully, listen to your body, and integrate more movement into your daily life. These simple behaviors, when done consistently, can make all the difference when it comes to your weight and health.
Bio: Allison is a holistic nutrition coach that works with busy moms who want to lose weight, increase energy, and improve their relationship with food. She focuses on sustainable behavior change, nutrition education, and mindset to help clients reach their wellness goals. Allison has a B.S. in dietetics and founded her coaching business, Nutrition Unlocked, LLC in 2012. In addition to one-on-one coaching, Allison has completed nutrition projects for numerous corporations including Intercontinental Hotels, Hard Rock Café, BBC Good Food, NPD Direct, Disney, and Marks & Spencer.
Hurst Y, F. H. (2018). Effects of changes in eating speed on obesity in patients with diabetes: a secondary analysis of longitudinal health check-up data. BMJ Open, 8:e019589. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2017-019589.
Maruyama K, S. S. (2008). The joint impact on being overweight of self reported behaviours of eating quickly and eating until full: cross sectional survey. BMJ, 21;337:a2002. doi: 10.1136/bmj.a2002. PMID: 18940848; PMCID: PMC2572205.