28-Dec 2013, by Lee Sandwith
Having made the transition from fat to flat, and keeping lean and physically fit for almost 10 years, I think I’ve been pretty successful when it comes to losing and maintaining weight. However, it certainly hasn’t been without its challenges. Anyone who really knows me will already know about my ‘white light’ as it has been the subject of much amusement, but for those of you who haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about I hope you find this article both interesting and amusing.
Everything in moderation; really?
The thing is, I come across so many articles written by weight loss and health experts about how ‘it’s all about balance’ and ‘everything in moderation’ and how important it is to consistently maintain a healthy, controlled diet. Whilst I subscribe to those principles for the most part, in reality, all humans are fallible and 99.9% of people will encounter some challenges when trying to restrict their diet, especially when trying to lose weight. I’ve been really looking forward to writing this article for lots of reasons. Firstly, it’s a subject close to my heart as whilst I spend most of my time ‘in the zone’, I spend a good percentage of my time balancing my long-term, well cogitated fitness goals with regular short-term cravings for less than desirable food. Secondly, we’re getting into an area slightly outside the realms of weight loss, fitness and nutrition and edging into philosophy, psychology and the human condition all of which are major side interests of mine.
For context, the majority of my energy goes into getting and maintaining an extremely low body fat percentage whilst maintaining muscle mass. This is a particularly challenging endeavour for me as I have a very slow metabolism and gain weight very easily. I get results by maintaining a very specific calorie deficit whilst ensuring I get the right macronutrient balance (protein, carbs & fat) getting 90% of my calories from honest, clean, natural foods. This means that certain foods are completely off the table especially the type of sugary, processed foods – such as biscuits, sweets, cakes and chocolate – on which my white light thrives.
What’s this white light all about?
The battle with my white light is the only major challenge I face when it comes to getting super-lean, everything else, such as exercise, fitness and the avoidance of alcohol comes very easy to me. Once activated, my white light is unstoppable. It’s as though I transcend into a trance-like state. Overcome by a hazy fog I become possessed, transported into an alternate universe of unconscious gluttony. It’s like I’ve been possessed by a demon, a demon that thrives and on sugar, a lot of sugar, and the more it gets, the more it proliferates.
From experience, sugar seems to be my main downfall as it alters my behaviour. If I’m not careful sugar can make my usually perspicacious brain switch off completely and the end result is that I end up consuming a shed load of unplanned calories. Fail! If it gets to white light stage there’s pretty much no stopping me so I’m in a constant battle to identify the signs and stop it before it starts: prevention is better than a cure and all that.
My case is exacerbated by a major sweet tooth coupled with a monumental capacity for eating so any loss of control can be very damaging to my nutrition goals. To provide some context, it’s not unusual for me to wake from a sugar induced stupor having destroyed a full jar of Nutella, tea spoon in hand, feeling rather sorry for myself. Chocolate, sweets, dessert and cookies are my nemesis when it comes to getting lean as the sugar makes me temporarily lose my mind and a few moments of madness can take me off the rails into a black hole of gluttony. Fortunately, there’s a pretty solid scientific explanation for all of this which means it’s manageable. Enter insulin.
The sugar rollercoaster
Insulin is a hormone which is secreted by the pancreas when an increase in blood sugar is detected to keep glucose levels stable. Carbohydrate is the body’s main source of sugar as it is digested into the bloodstream as glucose, however, the type of carbohydrate is a major factor when it comes to insulin. Simple carbohydrates have the biggest impact as they are broken down and digested very quickly, as opposed to complex carbs which, by definition, are more ‘complex’ as they are made up of other elements such as fibre, vitamins and minerals making them more difficult to break down. This means when you consume simple carbohydrate your blood sugar levels spike and you experience an instant sugar high. Your body then needs to quickly move glucose out of your bloodstream into your cells to either use immediately as fuel or store for later. It does this by releasing insulin to stabilise your blood sugar levels so almost immediately your blood sugar is lowered and you feel a sugar low. Once you experience the sugar low your body starts to crave sugar again and you have initiated the dreaded sugar craving cycle; or, as I call it, the white light!
Ok, so you may think that there’s a simple solution to all of this as in order to avoid the sugar craving cycle surely you just avoid sugar altogether. That’s definitely a good solution but avoiding temptation is something which runs deep as there are lots of factors at play when it comes to asserting control over your carnal desires. Let’s take a look into the psychology behind why we choose to ‘eat cake’ in the first place?
Roots in ancient philosophy
This quandary has been of great interest for hundreds of years even stretching back as far as Plato & Aristotle who philosophised that the human soul had two parts which need to be mastered in order for a person to be considered virtuous. The view was that there are both rational and non-rational parts of the soul which are constantly at odds with one another. Aristotle went as far as to intimate that the temptation of immediate desires has the capability of shutting down your thinking making the normally virtuous person to carry out uncharacteristic acts, almost as though in a fit of madness, drunk or acting whilst asleep. This thought process applies to many aspects of our lives, such as the suppression of rage, but it should be of particular interest to anyone who experiences this sort of weakness of will when it comes to food consumption.
Thinking Fast & Slow
This train of thought has continued into contemporary psychology and has been brought into the public domain by highly acclaimed authors such as Daniel Kahneman who postulates that the mind comprises two systems by which we process info in the world. In his best-selling book, Thinking Fast And Slow, he refers to these two systems, rather inspirationally, as System 1 and System 2. System 1, the older, evolutionary part of the mind which we share with animals, is concerned with gut reactions, emotions, and the quick sizing up of situations whilst System 2 is slower, more reflective, deliberating and calculating. These two minds operate together to determine our actions in any given situation, for example, System 1 provides an instantaneous reaction which System 2 can question, analyse and refine before we take action. As such, one of the main jobs of System 2 (the rational system) is to monitor the impulses of System 1, which is particularly useful as our gut reactions are not always reliable. In this, we can be prone to undesirable short-term weaknesses which do not agree with our longer-term goals resulting from a failure to properly manage our impulses.
The Chimp Paradox
Another tremendous book which promotes a very similar ideal is The Chimp Paradox, written by Dr. Steve Peters. In his book, Peters explains how the mind is made up of 7 different ‘brains’ of which three are deemed to be the ‘psychological’ brains. The two ‘brains’, which are of interest in this context are the Frontal and Limbic brains, otherwise referred to as the ‘Human’ and ‘Chimp’ brains respectively. The Chimp is a primitive, emotional machine which can be both constructive and destructive; constructive in that it responds well to short-term events and can instinctively save you from danger, destructive as it acts on impulse and can take action which can interfere with your longer-term interests. Peters explains that “only one of these beings is you, the Human” and that it is important to learn how to manage your chimp to “harness its strength and power when it is working for you and neutralise it when it is not”.
What has all this to do with weight loss?
All of this has an obvious translation into the realms of weight loss and fitness. Everyone looking to lose some weight understands that it’s not an immediate, short-term endeavour so by default any weight loss plan is something which goes beyond the minute to minute impulses that we face in the everyday world. As a result, much effort can be wasted by the mismanagement of short-term whims and urges. Everyone is fallible and it’s easy for the best intentions, made by the strongest and most logical human minds on the planet, to be overcome by the urge to indulge. It’s an optical illusion, created deep within your mind, which convinces you that the short-term pleasure right in front of you is more important than the longer-term goal you have previously set. It’s an evolutionary trait that we’re all born with. Essentially, this weak willed action is the manifestation of your Chimp who only sees the pleasure which is close in time (I can have that dessert right now) as it appears to be bigger in scale than something that’s really far off in time (six pack abs). At the specific moment of temptation we all have the tendency to exaggerate how good something is when it’s right in front of you and immediately available.
How to manage your Chimp
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that this is normal behaviour and it’s especially relevant to people looking to lose weight as there’s a tendency to take the view that one small item won’t have any great impact. If you have mastered the art of moderation then I guess this doesn’t apply to you, however, given that you’re reading an article which is found in a weight loss website it’s probably fair to assume that you haven’t quite mastered that particular art-form. Like me, giving into the small temptations is likely to lead to some seriously excessive indulgence as once that ‘white light’ is activated The Chimp completely takes over and there’s no turning back, especially if you’re indulging in sugary foods which trigger the undesirable sugar craving cycle. Peters, in The Chimp Paradox, suggests that one of the best ways to manage your chimp when in stressful situations is to have a plan which you can easily recall.
To that end, here’s a few tips on what you can do to manage your inner chimp.
Purge your cupboards
If you’re on a mission to lose weight there’s nothing more dangerous than having the temptation of bad food tucked away in your cupboards. Make it easy on yourself and get rid of anything which could be too much of a temptation for your chimp.
Avoid sugary foods
Cutting out refined sugar altogether when you’re trying to lose weight isn’t a bad idea at all as it can lead you down a slippery slope if you initiate the undesirable sugar craving cycle. If you have an immense craving for sugar, get your hit from fruit. It’s natures candy and because it’s packed with vitamins, minerals, fibre and protein, it’s more difficult to digest so can help to prevent that dreaded insulin spike.
Don’t starve yourself
Many diet plans are far too calorie restrictive and are not only extremely hard going but can be extremely unhealthy to boot. Eating several meals throughout the day helps to control hunger which definitely helps to prevent over-eating. If you plan to eat every 3-4 hours or so it’s much easier to postpone thoughts of food to your next meal if it’s just around the corner.
Plan to cheat
We’re all human and we need a release every now and then. Sticking to any diet plan 100% is just about impossible for most of us average humans so in setting unrealistic objectives you’re setting yourself up for failure. Having at least one cheat meal per week has a number of benefits, for example, it’s known to kick start your metabolism if you’re restricting calories which prevents your body from slipping into a low metabolism zone. One of the major benefits of having a cheat meal is that you can make a mental note of any foods you’re craving, so you can persuade your chimp to wait a couple of days until cheat day and you’ll let it have whatever it so desires.
Get out of the situation
If you feel like your chimp is just about to take over, just get out of the situation: go for a walk, go for a run, do some press-ups, leave the cake shop, just do something different to occupy your mind with something else!
If you’ve been eating well and you still feel hungry, the chances are that you’re actually thirty, not hungry. Before you raid the cookie jar, drink a couple of glasses of water as it will have the double benefit of quenching your thirst and filling your stomach which will make you feel fuller.
What do you think? Does anyone else have the same problem? What do you do to stop it? I’d be really interested in hearing all about it so please leave a comment 🙂