Not So Great Expectations: The Nocebo Effect

Not so great expectations

We hear a lot about what we should or shouldn’t be eating.

About how healthy something is. Or how we should absolutely avoid ‘evil’ foods of the moment like gluten or dairy or sugar.

But what if these expectations actually cause more harm than good?

Research illustrates how a group of people who were given meals without gluten but were told that it contained gluten complained of digestive issues after eating this meal – even though they had felt fine eating the exact same food when they knew the food was gluten-free.

We hear a lot about the placebo effect and what this research shows is just as powerful: The nocebo effect: The expectation that something will harm us becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And we all do this.

We eat that ice-cream…and a serving of guilt.

We eat something with gluten…and also our fear of the harm it will do us.

Because we don’t only eat physical food – we also eat the ideas we have about those foods.

So does this mean we can just eat junk food while chanting mantras about how healthy it is? That there’s no point in even trying to eat healthy?

Of course not. And I am not denying that gluten intolerance is a real problem either.

I simply want to suggest that healthy eating and living starts with your mindset.

Instead of eating ideas of doom and gloom about food or guilt, try this.

Replace judgement about food with open-minded curiosity. Turn “I’m sure I will feel like crap after eating this because it contains ________” into “I wonder how my body will feel after eating this? ”

Food is neither good nor evil and it very much depends on when you are eating, the quality of what you are eating and even how much of it you are eating. It depends on the season and even what stage of your life you are in – so the same food’s effect on us is constantly shifting. No external expert or diet will ever tell you what works best for your unique bio-individuality. Only starting a dialogue with your body to find what works for YOU will.

Most importantly, fully enjoy EVERYTHING you eat, regardless of how ‘unhealthy’ it is. There is no point in eating something healthy you really don’t enjoy or in eating something unhealthy without truly enjoying it. The pleasure we get from food has even been shown to affect the amount of nutrients we get from food.

Finally, don’t bother trying to be a perfect eater. Aim to eat ‘healthy’ food about 80% of the time. Remember that 80% is perfection.

The ultimate mindset for healthy eating? Eating with a serving of curiosity, mindfulness and intuition instead of fear, obligation and guilt.

Sources: Here and here

When We Love Food Too Much

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Many people tell me that they can’t help overeating because they love food too much.

I completely relate to food as one of my great pleasures in life.

Yet is it possible to love food too much?

I know from my own experience that this is possible.

We can love food too much when what we are eating is not just the food but the idea we build the food up to be.

Emotional eating author, Geneen Roth writes “We don’t want to EAT hot fudge sundaes as much as we want our lives to BE hot fudge sundaes.” 

When we eat those hot fudge sundaes, we are seeking excitement from it because we don’t have the courage to live in a way that brings real excitement into our lives.

Loving the idea of food happens when meal or snack times are the only excitement in our days. When we bury our emotional pain in a box of cookies. When we think we lack control around chocolate when in reality, it’s the only pleasure we allow ourselves after a tough day.

We start loving food too much when we become dependent on it as a substitute for something we are denying ourselves such as true pleasure, connection, adventure, self-care, a fulfilling career.

When we start looking at our true hunger for life, we realize that we no longer love food too much. We still love food but not in a desperate “I am expecting you to give me what I can’t give myself” sort of way.

When we honor our hunger for life, our love for food takes its rightful place and becomes just one of the many ways we nourish ourselves.

5 Lifestyle changes for weight loss

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In my last post, I looked into why diets don’t work. The obvious next question is, so what DOES actually help for weight loss? What lifestyle changes can we make for weight loss?

Based on all the research I have read and my own experience with weight loss, the most crucial thing is to completely ditch the whole idea of a diet and focus instead on making lifestyle changes.

Lifestyle changes are not just a temporary, short-term fix. Instead, they become a way of life you are willing to keep up over time.

They are not built on deprivation and restriction but focus instead on finding what nourishes you best.

Oh, and please forget about counting calories. Calories tell only a small part of the story. Focus instead on eating a healthy, balanced diet filled with real, unprocessed food. Think about nourishment, not calories.

Here are 5 lifestyle changes for weight loss:

1. Create a vision that goes beyond the number of kilos you want to lose.

WHY do you want to lose weight? What is truly going to motivate you to make changes to your lifestyle? ‘I want to lose 5 kilos’ is not motivating while ‘I am still young and want to actually look and feel my age’ or ‘I want to feel happy and confident in my body’ is. Your vision can then be used as a filter for making decisions: Will eating those cookies allow me to feel happy and confident in my body?

Action step: Create a vision that motivates you, that reminds you of the deeper reason you want to lose those 5 kilos. Keep asking ‘why’ to get to the root motivation.

2. Instead of focusing on what you CAN’T eat, focus on what you CAN eat. 

What do you want to include more of in your diet? Vegetables? Healthy fats? Protein? Superfoods? More regular meal times? More exercise? Studies show that focusing on positive change instead of deprivation actually leads to more sustainable weight loss. By adding healthy foods and habits instead of focusing on eliminating unhealthy ones, it is easier and more natural to create new habits as less healthy options are ‘crowded out’.

Action step: Identify the healthy habits you would like to add to your lifestyle, starting with just one habit each week. For example, week 1 could be adding more vegetables. Week 2 could focus on a commitment to always take the stairs. Start small and build up.

3. Bring a level of awareness to what you eat. 

Did you know that we make more than 200 food and beverage related decision EVERY DAY? Yet as Cornell University professor, Brian Wansink states,

So many food decisions are made on mindless autopilot.

Eating without really thinking often leads to eating too much or eating whatever is in front of us.

Action step: Keep a food journal: Writing down everything you eat and drink can bring a level of awareness and accountability that has been shown to help in weight loss.

4. Be realistic and gentle with yourself

Seeing the world as filled with ‘permitted’ or ‘forbidden’ foods will merely increase cravings for the ‘off limit’ foods. Strive instead for my 80% is perfection strategy where indulgence is permitted and nothing is off limits when consumed in moderation. Something I find helpful when it comes to indulgence is to decide beforehand how much you are allowing yourself to eat.

Action point: Allow pleasurable, mindful indulgences in your diet. Look into upgrading your indulgent food choices.

5. Acknowledge and accept your emotions

Perhaps because of my background in Psychology, I don’t think weight loss can be sustainable without taking into account the more emotional aspect of food and body image. We do not use food merely as fuel – it is loaded with meaning and emotion which needs to be taken into account. What do the extra kilos you are trying to get rid of signify? Protection? A way of avoiding a certain situation? A lack of self-worth? What do your cravings mean?

Action step: Identify the emotions you are bringing to the weight loss process. Journaling or working with someone can help bring more clarity to the process.

What about you, are there any changes you have made to your lifestyle that have helped you lose weight? What action points from this post would you like to experiment with?

Sources:

Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct

Number of food choices study 

Food diary study