Even though your diet can be a major factor in determining your energy level, susceptibility to disease, digestive health, mood, et cetera, most of the people who take into account the connection between food and health are those who want to lose weight. The vast majority of diet books out there are narrowly focused on a single goal: adjusting a person’s food intake to help them lose a few pounds. In addition to the diet books there are also the exercise regimens, and even the diet pills, and every once in a while a news segment on how overweight everyone is. In this realm of thinking food is treated as pure calories, and people who want to lose weight are supposed to eat low-calorie meals through exercising their willpower. Since the recommendations for losing weight are so uniformly dreary, dieters are often stuck in a constant struggle between actually enjoying themselves and suffering for the sake of either being “healthier” or of looking slimmer-the way we are all supposed to.
In my opinion the weight-loss industry fits the definition of a “racket”; their recommendations are just grueling or boring enough to keep many people from ever being able to fulfill them, while still extending the possibility of hope that keeps them in business. While I do agree that there are many people who’d be healthier if they lost weight, I think a different approach to the whole situation is necessary, starting with an attempt to understand how we got to this place.
First of all, the diet that most Americans eat, and the way that we eat it, does tend to create health problems, though not always weight gain. Some people do gain weight over time (in different places for different people), while others develop other “diseases of lifestyle”: heart attacks, digestive disorders, depression, diabetes, even cancer. Because of our different body types and metabolic rates, we have different reactions to the same foods. In the Indian medical system of Ayurveda, there are three different body types, the Vata, Pitta, and Kapha (or Winter, Summer, and Spring): the Vata is usually tall and skinny, the Pitta is short and sturdy, usually naturally muscular, and the Kapha is large and curvaceous, and difficult to move – someone with a lot of natural gravitas. The Kapha body type is better than the others at storing extra energy as fat. Thousands of years ago, when people were likely to go through periods of famine from time to time, the people who were genetically better at storing fat, like the Kapha type, were more likely to survive, because their bodies would break down the fat to be consumed as energy, thus fending off starvation.
What was once a natural advantage has become a liability in our calorie-rich, thin-focused society. Everyone suffers in their own way from eating a poor diet, as I said above. Some get chronic diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, and IBD, or have high cholesterol and high blood pressure, migraines, or depression. But only for people who react to low-nutrient food by gaining weight is the connection obvious. While everyone else’s health concerns are on the inside, and their causes supposedly unknown, overweight people are seen as weak-willed, lazy, and having only themselves to blame. This is sad because in traditional Ayurvedic thinking, and Indian culture, the Kapha type is the best: typically the most beautiful, natural leaders, and most powerful. Everyone wants to be Kapha. But since our culture idolizes the impossibly thin person (on top of encouraging us all to eat junk food) even Kaphas who weigh what they are supposed to weigh feel like they are fat, because they are not straight as a stick (a characteristic of the Vata, or Winter type).
As you can probably guess from the above, my recommendations for weight loss are not about will power or setting up the individual to fail. It’s not easy to transition to a healthy diet; when we’re tempted with endless quantities of sugar and fat, it’s because our bodies are used to those substances being scarce, and therefore crave them. But the difference in how you feel from eating well is enough to make most of us never want to go back to our old diet and lifestyle.
Eight Recommendations for Losing Weight:
These are recommendations that I’ve given to my clients that have worked for them. They are founded on dietary theory, but I include them because they actually make a difference when followed, and are not that difficult to follow.
1. Chew your food. Of the many good things that happen when you do this, I’ll mention two: chewing your food breaks it down before it gets to the intestines, which makes it easier for the body to digest and pass on. Nothing helps weight loss like not having food stuck in your intestines! Also, because of that extra step of digestion, and the slower eating that is necessary, we are more satisfied with less food and more likely to notice when we’ve had enough.
2. Eat vegetables last. Vegetables, fruit, beans and whole grains all have fiber, a substance that moves food through the digestive system. If you eat your salad first and meat or pasta last, the salad will pass through while the others just sit there. Eat vegetables last, and they will push through the food that came before them – cleaning out your system. Isn’t it funny how the American Dietetic Association recommends 25-30 grams of fiber per day but doesn’t tell you how to utilize it? I’ve never bothered to count my fiber grams, but I eat greens at the end of a meal. Problems with stomachaches and indigestion may also clear up for you.
3. Drink more water. Sometimes when we feel hungry we are in fact thirsty. If you’re hungry between meals, try drinking water and see if the hunger goes away.
4. Eat more healthy fats such as organic animal fat, olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil, and fish oil. One of the worst things dieters have to put up with is the pendulum swing of weight-loss diet fads. People are still getting over the idea that fat is bad for you (hopefully, they’ll also eventually get past the concept that carbs are bad for you). There are certain forms of fat that are healthy and necessary for life. One good thing about fat is that it is filling. Replacing fat with something else just makes you want to eat more food in an attempt to feel satisfied. If you eat enough fat during breakfast, lunch, or dinner, you probably won’t want to eat until the next meal. So put butter on your oatmeal or brown rice, gravy on your turkey, olive oil on your greens, etc. You will end up eating fewer calories – and they’ll be healthier than the ones in the fat substitutes.
5. Do something you enjoy for exercise. There are many different kinds of activity for us to choose from – running, swimming, biking, weight lifting, yoga, gymnastics, martial arts, dancing, competitive sports, rowing, Frisbee, juggling, etc. – but if it doesn’t energize you, I wouldn’t recommend it. Interestingly, many people have lost most of their weight just by going for long walks, without any exercise equipment needed. I find that exercising purely for some intangible concept of health can feel like a chore. Once you do find an enjoyable mode of activity, though, it can become addictive.
6. Indulge during dinner. The foods most likely to be chemicalized, artificial junk foods are the ones we eat in between breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or in place of those meals, when you’re too tired to cook). If you try to starve yourself during mealtime, you’ll likely be hungry when it’s not mealtime and eat something unhealthy. So I recommend eating at very specific, consistent times every day, and making sure that you eat enough during one meal to last you to the next – despite any urge you may have to reduce your portions.
7. What else is nourishing besides food? Sometimes I eat as a way of reducing stress, because it makes me feel better. If I realize that I’m eating junk, I try to find some other way to reduce stress. Here are some sample ideas for a “nourishment list”: read a book; take a hot bath; get a back massage from your friend, girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse; take a walk; watch a movie (especially a comedy); exercise; clean your house; meditate; paint; play an instrument; bake (homemade cookies are better); talk to your friends, take five deep breaths, play cards, get dressed up, dance, or just write down all the good things that have happened to you today.
8. Eat whole foods and natural sweeteners. A lot of weight gain comes from eating manufactured and processed food. A package of oreos has as many calories as a table piled high with grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and animal food. And even with all those calories, you’re still starved of vitamins and minerals. Thus we can be both overweight and malnourished at the same time. As I said before, it can be awkward to transition to whole foods, and not through any fault of our own. Junk and fast food is designed to be easy to eat and addictive. So the most important recommendation is really never to feel any guilt about the struggle, because those sorts of feelings can paralyze us into not even trying to be healthier and happier. Instead, think positively about yourself and your capabilities. This may be the hardest recommendation to follow, but with it all the others become much easier.