11. How to Plan Your Food
Welcome to episode 11 of the Mindful Weight Loss podcast. Thank you so much for tuning in.
Today I want to talk about planning your food and the best way to go about that.
In my program my clients plan what they are going to eat in advance, generally just for the day ahead, although there are those who might plan a few days out for the sake of convenience, grocery shopping and so forth.
And first, things first - I want to be extremely clear that this is not about restriction or calorie counting or any kind of diet approach. This is simply an awareness tool. Overeating tends to be something we do mindlessly, and when we create some boundaries, guidelines or structure for our day, when we do step outside that structure and maybe wander to the kitchen and open up a bag of chips in the afternoon, if that snack isn't on the plan, a little red flag goes off in our brain and signals for us to pay attention. We think, oh, I didn't plan this, and instantly we become more mindful of what's happening. And at that point we can make a much more intelligent choice as to whether to continue that eating.
And yeah, notice that just because it's not on the plan doesn't mean you throw it back in the pantry and run the other direction. Maybe you are really hungry, in which case you can make a decision to continue with the chips or something else and pay attention while you eat. A lot of time though we find that we aren't really hungry in these moments and when we eat off plan it's a great signal that something else is going on that we need to pay attention to, and create a strategy to address.
So that's the first takeaway I want you to get from this - if you do create a food plan, don't create it with restriction in mind. Don't even create it with weight loss in mind. Create it simply to create more awareness around your eating.
One reason planning is so helpful is because it activates our strategic dopamine circuit. In last week's episode I talked a lot about dopamine and how it reacts to food restriction so be sure to check that one out if you haven't yet. In that episode I explained that dopamine has two distinct circuits. There's the wanting circuit that wants what is right in front of it and is concerned with immediate gratification and short-term rewards. But there's also a strategic circuit that is calculating and concerned with long-term rewards like losing weight. This circuit likes figuring things out. It likes planning to achieve goals.
And if you want to lose weight it makes sense to activate this circuit. You want to be motivated to make behavior changes that are probably not going to feel fantastic in the moment, not because they are terrible, but simply because they are new. For example, drinking an extra glass of water during the day is a great thing, but when we're not used to doing it, it's going to feel unfamiliar and even icky.
Dopamine's wanting circuit is going to steer you clear of anything that feels icky. It wants the easiest, short-term reward. But dopamine's strategic circuit can overcome this. This circuit can imagine the future where you have lost weight and feel great, and is willing to make some sacrifices to get there. And again, not real objective sacrifices. It's simply willing to drink that extra glass of water and deal with that bit of discomfort that comes from performing new behavior.
And so this is the circuit we want to plan our food. The strategic circuit is simply more thoughtful about how your actions will influence your future outcome and can motivate you to make different choices than the choices you have been making.
There is something really important to be aware here though and that is that dopamine's strategic circuit is extremely cold and calculating. Dopamine is not a warm and fuzzy, feel-good neurochemical, it's a fiercely driven, unfeeling neurochemical that doesn't really care how it get what it wants. And as such, you'll probably notice that when you do begin planning your food, your instinct is going to be to plan in a way that is too restrictive. Your strategic circuit is the one that thinks going on a diet or a fast is a great idea. It doesn't care how, it just wants to get you to your end goal.
But now that you know this you can outsmart your strategic circuit so you don't fall into that restrictive trap. When you plan you want to think about giving the wanting circuit some legitimate satisfaction. And yes, that means planning for pleasure.
Like it or not, food is not just fuel. It was designed to be pleasurable and we have a very primal relationship with it. Food is not just calories and in fact when we think of it that way, I think we dishonor it. Food was meant to be appreciated and savored. And so if you're not going to appreciate a plain poached chicken breast and broccoli don't plan that.
And yes, I should clarify here that my clients plan to eat what they want. There is no prescribed diet to follow. You have ultimate freedom when it comes to food.
And that can sound scary at first, but it's incredibly empowering to make decisions for yourself and to embrace the reality that you do have the freedom to eat whatever you want.
And I know some people think this means they are liable to spend the entire day eating cookie dough, and I will freely admit that there is a small part of our brain that thinks that sounds like a great idea. But that's just an idea. That's not you. There is also a part of your brain that wants to eat in order to promote incredible health and thinks it would be a great idea to eat nothing but kale. But that thought isn't you either.
You are the witness who can observe both of these ideas or wants and can seek to balance them. And that's what we do when we plan. We observe these different desires from these seemingly different personalities and seek a balance that will satisfy them both at the same time. You can eat kale AND cookie dough.
So that's takeaway two: plan with the goal of balancing both of these dopamine circuits. Plan to satisfy you needs for fuel AND for pleasure. Plan both for the future and for right now.
The third takeaway is to plan realistically and what I mean by that is simply to take stock of what's in your kitchen, how much time you have to prepare meals and so forth. If you don't have any interest in cooking, don't plan meals that require you to be a chef. And if you don't have time, don't plan on things that are time-consuming to make unless you can also plan time in your schedule to make meals like that ahead of time.
And I know that sounds obvious, but I find so many of us overlook this point on practicality precisely because it seems like such a no brainer. But knowing yourself and your preferences for cooking, dishes, grocery shopping, and things like meal prep are a big deal. It's just like learning to honor your preferences with foods. You can lament the fact that you don't like kale and wish that you did and think that life would be so much better if you liked kale, or you can just move on with your life and focus on all the other vegetables that you do like. Similarly, if you don't like to cook, don't make yourself miserable wishing that you did. Focus on what you can do instead.
And I can tell you first-hand that you don't have to really cook in order to eat healthy foods and lose weight. My standard lunch is one of the easiest things in the world to make and it requires little more than boiling water and using a microwave.
My fourth takeaway about planning food occurs after you make your plan and start using it and that is to make observations and to write them down when possible.
Maybe you thought you'd like a new recipe but you really didn't - make a note not to have that again or about how to improve it. Or maybe you tried a new flavor and really enjoyed it - make a note to try that again in a different dish. Or maybe you had something really filling and you want to make a note to make a smaller portion of that the next time around. Or maybe you ate something that made you really bloated. Definitely make a note of that.
This is more beneficial than it may seem. For one, when you give yourself this kind of feedback, you make planning easier the next time around. When you take note of what works you simply need to rinse and repeat for next time to be a success.
You also begin to really pay attention to and learn your own preferences which is key to getting real satisfaction out of food. For example, plain chocolate used to be one of my binge foods and the more I paid attention to my experience with it, the more I realized that it's not my favorite thing. Like, the world loves chocolate and I thought I did too until I paid attention and found that I didn't. And in fact I paid attention so much and realized that I like chocolate best in certain forms. Like I love a chocolate cheese cake. And so now, if I'm planning for something sweet, I can plan for chocolate cheesecake and be more satisfied with my experience because I'm actually eating something I really do enjoy.
You also may realize the effects that some foods have on your body. You might notice that something really sugary really does leave you feeling low 40 minutes later, or that something healthy makes you really gassy the next day. And once you have that information you're more empowered to make decisions that keep you feeling your best.
And that's a great segue to my final takeaway which is to make this a grand, FUN, yes I said FUN, experiment. Our ultimate goal here is to feel good. And really, how great is that? Yes, plan with the goal of feeling good. What's going to feel good in your body and please your senses? What's going to be an easy win to whip up in the kitchen?
There's a great saying that how you do anything is how you do everything, and as I coach I can say this is so true, and as a weight loss coach I can say that this is even more true regarding how we relate to food and our bodies. Our relationships to these things show some strong paralells to the way we relate to the world and to life. Planning your food with positive intention is a wonderful opportunity to approach eating with more openness and curiosity, and when that spills over into the rest of your life, that's a really wonderful thing.