Overcoming Mental Food ChatterApr 06, 2022
By: Tedi Nikova MPH, RD
One of the first exercises that we encourage our clients to complete in our signature program is planning meals in advance.
You may be thinking …
I’ve already tried planning, and then I stopped, OR
I don’t have time to plan my meals for the week, OR
I am just not a planning person.
Planning in advance is beyond just being more prepared for meal time, it’s to reduce your brain from making impulse food choices that don’t serve you, or your health goals.
Let’s look at why this is SO important…
To understand why planning your food in advance is so important, I will first need to break down the appetite system. There are 3 layers of the appetite system, located in the brain, that are involved in the what, and how much food you eat. The first layer is the hypothalamus, this layer of the appetite system controls hunger, and fullness cues. It keeps track of how much energy is available in your body, if you’ve recently eaten, or, if it has been a few hours and you should be getting hungry. The second layer is the reward brain (ie. the toddler with the gimmes). The reward brain is responsible for food cravings, and the wanting of food; the reward brain drives eating when you are not actually physically hungry! The hypothalamus, and reward brain, are both subconscious areas of the appetite system, therefore you do not have direct control over these two layers, The only layer of the appetite system that you have conscious control over is the executive brain (ie. the planning brain). The executive brain makes logical, planned, and deliberate decisions. The executive brain is like a battery, it works well in the morning, but by night time the executive system is sleepy, this is a prime time for the reward brain to kick into gear!
For successful weight loss you need to use the executive layer of the appetite system. This is the part of the brain that creates a pause before reaching for a second serving at lunch when you are already full!
If you are not planning for your meals, this leaves a lot more room for in-the-moment drama. The reward (impulse) layer of the appetite system (i.e the toddler with the gimmies), is more likely to take the lead in your food choices.
Let’s walk through an example …
Let’s say you have no food plan for the day. You may find it easy to prepare breakfast, and lunch with no plan, but as the day goes on you start to get tired from the hundreds of decisions you had to make, leaving room for your reward brain to kick into high gear. It’s now 5 pm, and you have no plan for dinner.. you forgot to de-frost the chicken at home, and your partner is texting you what’s for dinner. You are still trying to finish up your work for the day, and notice that you are starting to get hungry, your reward brain now has a chance to attack, “Just get some takeout, it will be so delicious and easy, you will just make a healthier choice tomorrow!”.
So you can see how planning is SO much more than choosing what to eat in advance. It’s about engaging in the parts of the brain that are needed to make food choices aligned with your weight loss goals! The goal of planning in advance is to reduce the mind drama on “what should I eat!”. You can think of planning in advance as the ultimate time saver tool!
So, how can you implement planning in advance today?
We got you!
We have gathered 5 easy steps that have helped many of our patients to successfully plan in advance!
Step #1: Create a list of staple meals. Make a list of 5 go-to breakfasts and lunches, and 15 go-to dinners. Make sure that these meals align with your taste preferences, and lifestyle. For example, if you only have 2 minutes in the morning to prepare breakfast you may want to choose something that requires very little prep such as Greek yogurt parfait with nuts and seeds and frozen berries.
Step #2: Start with one meal. We encourage you to start just planning one meal in advance and trying new recipes for that meal. After a few weeks, when you feel confident with your staple meals, you can move onto the next meal!
Step #3: Trial making a food plan 1 day in advance. When you feel confident in your staple meals, you can try making a food plan the night before, for the next day! Remember- you want to be specific and realistic; you want to feel at least 90% confident that you can follow through with this plan the next day.
Step #4: Ask yourself, “how can I make my life easier?”. Consider preparing some meals in advance. If you are going to be running out the door and taking your breakfast on-the-go, you may want to consider quickly assembling your breakfast the night before, or de-frosting a frozen chicken in the morning. Remember, you want to always set yourself up for success.
Step #5: Reflect and adapt. Reflect on the amount of food you put on your food plan. Were you still physically hungry after your meals? Was this plan too much food that you were eating past the point of physical fullness?
Remember, not all days will look the same. For example, if you plan to dine out for dinner tomorrow night, then plan! You can look at the menu beforehand and make a realistic food plan on what you’ll choose to eat at this meal.