After the period of feasting from Thanksgiving through Christmas, the New Year leads many of us to think about getting back in shape and losing some of those holiday pounds.
There's a wide variety of dieting approaches, ranging from raw food, juice, vegetarian, high carbohydrate, low carbohydrate, low fat, and paleolithic diets, to name only a few. Naturally, the contradictions between these different diets leads to a great deal of confusion. What may work fantastically for one person may spell failure for another.
After exploring all of these, it's my opinion that there is no single diet that is right for everyone. Rather than adhere to a rigid program, I think it's better to adopt the following principles that can guide us according to our individual needs and circumstances.
Ten Principles for Healthy Eating
1: Choose foods that you know are nutritionally dense. In that way, you will be more satisfied and experience fewer cravings. Don't rely on either dairy or soy as a primary source of protein. Dairy tends to be mucus forming and congesting while soy is too cooling and can cause low thyroid.
2: Develop a regular eating routine. The body operates best in regular cycles (night, day, the seasons, etc.). When the body recognizes a regular time to eat, digestive juices will flow into the stomach creating a sense of hunger.
3: All meals should be balanced in terms of protein, vegetables and carbohydrates with appropriate attention to serving portions (which I will address in my next blog post). This will help satisfy our nutritional as well as emotional needs and provide a balance of Yin (cooling, detoxifying, eliminating) properties and yang (warming, repairing, building) properties.
4: Give thanks and bless your food before eating. This fosters a more centered approach to eating and cultivates the virtues of appreciation and gratitude. One way this can be done inconspicuously is to reserve a small portion, say a half teaspoon, of every type of food on your plate to one side. This tiny portion is not eaten and is left as an offering to the Great Spirit.
5: Eat slowly in a quiet, peaceful and undistracted atmosphere. This may mean eating alone most of the time which is best. Feeling anxious or distracted often leads to overeating as a way to dull the senses. Eating too fast does not give the body a chance to signal that you are full until you may have already overeaten. Setting down your fork or spoon in between every couple of bites slows down the process and can give things a chance to settle.
6: Eat when you are hungry and only what you feel you need. Your parents may have told you to eat everything on your plate, but as we get older this tendency should be reversed. A woman I know who is 98 and remarkably fit for someone even 20 years younger makes it a practice to eat only half of everything she is served, saving the leftovers for later.
7: If you tend to overeat, try drinking a glass of room temperature (never cold) water 10 minutes or so before your meal. This helps give a fuller feeling in the stomach and thus you eat less.
8: Eat according to what is as local and seasonally available as possible. Foods that are locally grown acclimatize and adjust your body to the seasonal and environmental influences where you live. This practice is one of the best ways to prevent and treat seasonal allergies. It is also best for the economy and the environment
9: Don't unduly deny yourself. It is better to have a small amount of something that you desire, even if it is not the best for you, than to avoid it altogether; abstaining completely often leads to binge-eating later. If at all possible, try to understand what the real nutritional need is behind a desire. For instance, a diet of carbs, vegetables and fruit, lacking in protein, will often precipitate ravenous sweet cravings later. Protein deficiency leads to exaggerated sweet cravings, making a sweet in the form of candy or ice cream seem irresistibly attractive. Furthermore, excessive self denial contributes to a rigidity that will effect other areas of your life.
10: Avoid ice-cold drinks and foods. Heat is energy; when we ingest ice-cold drinks and foods, we tend to cool our gastric fires and deplete our energy reserves. The feeling of bloat and gas that occurs after eating means imperfect digestion, where food is not fully processed in a timely way, failing to move smoothly through the GI tract. Ingestion of cold drinks and foods can cause this, as well as inappropriate combinations of heating and cooling foods such as proteins with vegetables (especially raw vegetables) and fruit.
What About Exercise?
The notion that building muscles greatly accelerates weight loss is overemphasized by many gyms and fitness experts.
The fact is that muscle building, however good for you, has comparatively little effect on weight loss if you cannot come to terms with the issue of portion control. Have you ever seen what happens to the muscles of body builders when they stop building those muscles? They typically turn to flab. Muscles should be cultivated based upon our daily work and activity needs -- not for the sake of appearance. (I used to live in Venice Beach and watched musclebound wonders working out in front of my doorstep each day. The Beat poet Clare Horner wrote, "Hey muscle man, when are you going to start using those muscles you are building?")
Aerobic exercise in the form of vigorous walking, jogging or some other such activity is preferred to muscle-building because it burns more calories and it benefits the cardiovascular system. Getting outside for fresh air (preferably in a natural setting) allows us to get our daily dose of Vitamin D, which is so essential to maintaining a healthy immune system. Anyone who cultivates and appreciation for taking their 'daily constitutional,' be it a walk or moderate jog, will readily tell you how much better they immediately feel. It is the cure for so many ills, including obesity, weak digestion, respiratory diseases, pains of the joints, and of course, cardiovascular disease.
Just as many of us prefer variety in our food we will find that variety in our physical activities is also preferred and best. Coupling a physical activity with play can be the most satisfying fitness endeavor, especially if we have achieved some level of proficiency in a sport.
In sum, regular aerobic activity along with adherence to some basic principles for eating responsibly rather than fad diets will take us a long way toward achieving our health and weight goals.
Next week we'll take a look at proper portion control.