You’ve surely heard the saying, “You are what you eat,” but a new study conducted by a team of researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) indicates that you are what you think.
The HUNT study began eleven years ago with the testing of thousands of average-weight Norwegian kids aged thirteen to nineteen. They were weighed, measured, and their Body Mass Index (BMI) was calculated. Then they were asked questions about their lifestyle and body image.
When the researchers re-examined the youth as young adults (ages 24–30 years old), they discovered that the participants who felt like they were fat as adolescents gained .88 BMI units more than those who thought they looked just fine as teens.(1)
“Perceiving themselves as fat even though they are not may actually cause normal weight children to become overweight as adults,” says Koenraad Cuypers, one of the researchers on the project. (2)
Why would thinking you’re fat actually make you fat? Let’s take a closer look…
The Science of “Fat Thoughts”
In 2007, the University of Georgetown published research showing that stress and anxiety trigger a reaction in the body which actually creates belly fat growth. Here’s a simplified explanation of what happens biologically. When you are feeling stressed, your body releases a neurotransmitter called neuropeptide (NPY), and NPY uploads into the belly fat cells, making them grow. In this way, there are indeed thoughts that can make you fat.
Do “Fat Thinkers” Act Differently?
Another part of the equation is that many people who think they are fat try to diet. They skip meals and eat low-fat foods while working out rigorously. When you diet in this manner, especially if you aren’t actually obese, your body will try to regulate itself back to the weight it was before it was starving and overworked. When you can’t keep up with the diet and boot camp regime anymore, you get fat. That’s the dieting yo-yo.
Change your mind, change your body. There a few key ingredients in a healthy body recipe: The right amount of quality sleep, stress-reduction, good nutrition, and positive thoughts.
Why Sleeping Matters…
Dr. Shelby Harris, in an interview with ABC News, shared the results of a recent study which showed that participants who slept less than six hours a night had a harder time losing weight than those who slept six to eight hours.(3) In order to get good, quality sleep every night, Dr. Harris recommends the following lifestyle changes:
- Exercise moderately for at least twenty minutes in the late afternoon or early evening.
- Avoid caffeine (including chocolate and soda) after 1:00 pm.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine as much as possible.
- Include a quieting down period before bedtime.
- Sleep in a dark, quiet room without electronics.
- Keep the same rest and wake routine every day, including weekends.
Beat Stress, Lose Fat
Doctors at the Mayo Clinic promote specific relaxation techniques as a means to reduce stress symptoms. Using mind-body practice, you can:
- Slow your heart rate
- Lower your blood pressure
- Slow your breathing rate
- Increase blood flow to major muscles
- Reduce muscle tension and chronic pain
- Improve concentration
- Reduce anger and frustration
- Boost confidence to handle problems(4)
At-Home Practices to Break Free from Fat Thoughts
- VISUALIZATION – In this practice, you use positive mental imagery and power words to speak directly to your own biology. When we visualize, we always envision what we want, the ideal, never what we don’t want (or are trying to avoid). Your mind doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined experiences so the imagined experience of lightness, security, and confidence can lead to biological changes.
- MEDITATION – This is a general term referring to a wide variety of practices aimed at clearing and focusing the mind. You can meditate on a particular goal (such as compassion or safety), or simply sit quietly. There are dozens of techniques that include everything from mantras and prayers to breath work and movement. Each practice has its benefits, and more important than that specific meditation technique is that you simply practice what works for you.
- GENTLE YOGA – Think of yoga as the union of body, mind, and spirit. Most of the eight branches of yoga concern themselves with spiritual enlightenment, but in the west, we mainly correlate yoga with “asana,” or the practice of poses. Practicing gentle, seated stretches can be a great way to relax the body and create balance within the body.
- Other forms of stress-relief techniques include, but are not limited to: Tai chi, massage therapy, tapping, progressive muscle relaxation, and hypnosis.
Keep in mind that these techniques take practice. Be patient with yourself, and give yourself ample time to learn. Soon, you’ll become more aware of your stress response and will be able to use your preferred technique to rebalance before stressful situations escalate.
Good Nutrition is a Good Idea
Focus on eating healthy, whole foods instead of on counting calories. Eat plenty of raw fruits and vegetables of all colors, shapes, and sizes. Buy organic and local whenever possible, as these will always contain a superior nutritional profile.
It is also important to avoid foods that you are allergic to. If you think you may have a problem digesting wheat gluten or dairy (extremely common), you’d be wise to consider allergy testing. If you are having an allergic reaction to your foods, it can cause inflammation, inhibit the absorption of nutrients, and even lead to nutritional famine.
Exchange your pretzels and chips for nuts and raw fruits that will provide your body with vital nutrients, rather than spiking your insulin levels and be sending fat straight into your cells.
Reduce the amount of meat, dairy, fats, and sugar in your diet. Use organic cheeses, free-range eggs, and grass-fed meats whenever possible. Prepare meat on the grill or in the oven or crockpot. Stir-frying eggs, meat, and vegetables in a little ghee or olive oil is a great quick-meal solution.
Think Positive, It’s Good for Your Waistline
The positive mental focus is crucial to your success and that means you must stop focusing on how much weight you still have to lose. Instead, focus on feeling wonderful in your body, congratulate yourself for your progress so far (even if you’ve just begun), celebrate healthy eating, and enjoy the positive changes you have made.
By keeping a positive self-image in your mind, you will decrease your anxiety level and increase your confidence. Visualization, meditation, and having a support group of positive friends and family can contribute to a positive attitude that will assist you in your success.
(2) Norwegian University of Science and Technology. News. 2012. www.ntnu.edu/news/2012-news/teens-and-fat
(3) “Fight Fat with More Sleep and Less Stress,” ABC News Video. 3.30.2011. www.abcnews.go.com/Health/video/fight-fat-sleep-stress-13258748
(4) Mayo Clinic Staff, “Relaxation Techniques: Try these steps to reduce stress.” www.mayoclinic.com/health/relaxation-technique/SR00007
(5) “Physical Activity and Adults,” Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health. World Health Organization. www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/factsheet_adults/en/index.html
(6) Image credit: www.123rf.com/photo_13057216_teen-girl-unhappy-with-their-appearance.html