It’s a new year, which means many of us have vowed to achieve lofty health ambitions only a week after we stretched our stomachs on one of the year’s greatest days of indulgence, Christmas Day.
But there is some good news — the stomach organ is muscular, so it is malleable and can contract back into shape.
As for our new year’s resolutions, health lecturer Dr Fiona Willer says it is far better to build a good relationship with food to reach long-term goals than to restrict your intake of calories or abolish entire food groups.
Mechanics of the belly
Dr Willer, a specialist in nutrition and food psychology at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), says the stomach can typically fluctuate from a capacity of 500 milliliters to about 2 litres.
She says the stomach contains “mechanoreceptors”, which senses when there is a stretch in the stomach and can help signal a sign of “feeling full” to the brain.
“When we’ve stretched the stomach quite frequently, like we often do over the Christmas season, we tend to be less able to sense stretches in the stomach,” Dr. Willer says.
Fortunately, Dr. Willer says the stomach can return to its pre-Christmas size within a few days.
But she warns people not to take a “restriction” approach to their diet if they are hoping to lose weight this year.
“Restriction is not good psychologically, it means we actually get a higher drive to eat the things we’re telling ourselves we shouldn’t eat,” Dr Willer says.
“Human beings like to protect their autonomy at every turn. That’s how we’re wired.
“So restriction will always backfire, whatever we tell ourselves we can’t eat is what our brain presents to us as [the thing] we want to eat. We’re all rebels at heart.”
So, what can we do?
Dr. Willer says to get your stomach and brain in sync you need to listen closely to your body.
“It’s recognizing that when we feel hungry, particularly after we’ve been eating to capacity for a period of time, that our hunger signals might not be calibrated in the [usual] way,” she says.
To put this into practice, she says you need to envision what an “enjoyable” day of eating would look like for you, including nutritional foods that make you feel energized, and eat like this for a few days.
Dr. Willer says it’s important to include “core foods”, which are essentially less-processed food items that are high in nutrients.
These include meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, grains and dairy.
“The body needs the core foods to function properly … and if you’re eating a lot of non-core foods, you don’t have room in your day for [nutritional meals],” she says.
Recipe for long-term success
“Diets don’t work,” Dr. Willer says.
She says at its core, eating well is relatively simple — you just need to ensure you enjoy eating the food you’ve chosen.
“[Think about] what makes you feel good when you eat it. The kind of food, the way of eating it, and use that as a guide for when you’re getting back into the rhythm of 2023,” Dr Willer says.
“If you’re eating something you don’t want to be eating that will backfire whether or not that is consistent with the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.”
She says it’s crucial to find the foods that will feed your body that you actually enjoy, whether that’s green salad, sides of roasted vegetables or fruits.
She suggests that to continue enjoying nutritional food think about variety from the food itself, to its preparation and colours.
Dr. Willer acknowledges “there’s no one particular way that’s going to be the right way for any individual to eat” but believes “the special ingredient” to success is eating food you enjoy.
Fellow QUT professor Danielle Gallegos agrees with Dr Willer that you need to find nutritional foods that “bring you joy”.
“One of the biggest new year’s resolutions is ‘I’m going to lose weight, I’m going to go on a diet’ and really, diets don’t work,” Ms Gallegos says.
“It’s really about having a good relationship with food … going back to the foods that really do have a lot of high nutritional value and give you joy as well.”
Ms Gallegos has a few tips if you’re wanting to eat healthily but always feel hungry.
She suggests drinking more water and potentially having smaller meals more regularly, along with upping your vegetable and fruit intake.