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New Year's Resolution: don't just lose weight, get healthy

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CakeIt's the new year and guess what's on (almost) everyone's minds: Losing weight and dropping some of the pounds they put on, especially during the holiday season.

Of course, there are a number of those 'airy' thin, yin, fiery types who seem to be able to eat as much as they want and hardly put on a pound. You might guess that these types have a high metabolism. This is correct, but is that the whole story? Could be, but these preternaturally skinny types might also be using that high metabolism to digest a diet that's actually helping them to stay lean and healthy. Read on:

Refined Sugar: The Enemy!

I'm going to have to assume, perhaps wrongly, that most people who might visit my site and read my blog already know most of the problem foods and activities to avoid. But just to be clear at the onset, just as money is sometimes called the root of all evil, sugar would be considered the root of all gustatory evils. And just like money, sugar is not necessarily bad in itself, especially if in unrefined forms like honey, agave and maple syrup which contain minerals that our bodies need.

Traditional medicine classifies foods in terms of flavors and therapeutic effects. The sweet flavor is practically ubiquitous in the foods we commonly eat. These foods contain the kind of carbohydrates and proteins that the body needs to function at optimal levels. From the perspective of traditional herbal medicine (THM), this means that if we crave and overeat sweets, some part of us is malnourished.

When we overindulge in sweets made with white sugar, high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners derived from corn and refined grains such as white flour, our insulin spikes which causes our bodies to quickly store the unwanted calories as fat. Instead of being satisfied, our bodies feel even more deprived, because like a child promised a present that he did not receive, the body acts up with even more cravings for sweet, rich foods. Ever notice how one indulgence in a refined sweet like candy leads to another? I offer that this fierce internal need is the root for all addictions.

This may not be easy, but if you're really serious about achieving optimal health and weight, the first order of business is to eat, whole, organic pure foods. If you have any suspicion that you may be not eating the optimal diet, check out the latest issue of Men's Health Magazine's 20 Worst Foods In America. If you think you are in this category of individual seeking to lose weight, you may have to start with the basics.

Basic steps to achieve optimal health and weight:

  • Eat whole, pure foods, avoid 100% of the foods sold in the center aisles of grocery stores, and for that matter so-called health food stores as well. Learn the dozens of ways to identify refined sugar on labels.
  • Plan your meals and either prepare all your own food or hire someone to prepare your food for you.
  • Regularly exercise - a half hour of most exercise maintains weight; at 45 minutes of continuous exercise is where one begins to lose accumulated fat stores. One can practice a more aerobic type of yoga, Qi Gung (and don't fall for the myth that slow Asian exercise that doesn't increase your pulse and cause you to break a sweat isn't going to do anything to dissolve fat). Running or walking are great options too. For the winter, I like to use my Nordic track while watching my favorite TV show. (And please, guys, how can you allow yourselves to lie back on the couch, slugging down pizza, beer, nachos, sodas and other fattening snacks while watching your football heroes who are fit as can be get such a great work out? Let them inspire you to get on a stepper, glider, stationary bike, or trampoline for at least for 30 to 45 minutes during the game.)
  • A special reminder for computer addicts (I'm one!): Try to make it a point to get up and get physical for 10 minutes or so every hour.

OK, so those are the basics. Screw up any of these and I guarantee you will fail to achieve optimal health and weight.

Refined Foods, Alcohol and Emotional Eating

Refined foods in general are trigger foods that just make you want to eat more. Even refined salt increases our salt craving because the naturally occurring minerals in salt have been removed mostly to enable more convenient dispensing. Avoid refined foods like the plague. In fact in our society they are a plague and the major underlying cause of all disease.

As for alcoholic drinks, everyone should know that alcohol is a byproduct of fermented sugar. Therefore, as alluded to previously, alcoholic addiction should be considered from one perspective as another form of sugar addiction. (If you think this is hyperbole, check out the sugary snacks always present at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.) From that perspective, it is really trading one terrible self-destructive addiction for another.

If you want to preserve even a semblance of health while indulging, make it a point to consume alcohol that has no added refined sugar. In the old days, cheap alcohol made from refined sugar was called "rot gut." In my clinical experience, I have seen that it is so much easier for an alcoholic to recover if he or she only drank good quality alcohol rather than one who drank booze spiked with sugar to cheaply increase its alcohol levels.

Emotions are a big part of our food cravings. Tell an Italian to give up pasta, or an Irishman to lay off the whiskey, and it's tantamount to denying a cultural inalienable right! (As for you pasta lovers, did you know that cooking pasta al dente lowers the glycemic index so that the carbs are not so quickly stored as fat? Al dente means "to the tooth" -- in other words, the pasta should not be too soft, still giving your teeth some work to do when chewing. For healthier, less fattening pasta, it should be put into the a pot of rolling, boiling water and cooked, depending on the type of pasta, no longer than 5 to 8 minutes. Test your pasta toward the end of cooking time to be sure it is not too hard nor too soft -- just al dente.)

It's really hard to completely overcome our associations with food that stem from the most festive and happiest remembrances of our childhood and young adulthood (whether these are pasta, beer, wine, desserts, ice cream, candy -- you know what they are), and now that we are grown think of all of those things as "bad" for us. I bet most of you are rejecting that thought as you read it here. It's the same little voice that creeps up in our moment of tiredness or weakness that says, "Aw, that can't be completely bad" or "Just a little bit can't hurt." Well, a little bit may not hurt, but let's face it: it's awfully hard to have just a little bit!

Making Responsible, Principled Choices for Diet and Health

I have found that categorically rejecting anything in life (food or otherwise) either drives one to a state of overblown opinionated insanity (where you find yourself shunning certain foods and indulgences as if they were going to be instant death), or else eventually one caves in and indulges to excess in moments of stress, tiredness and weakness.

Have you ever noticed that living in community makes us just as vulnerable to the healthful foods others offer us as we are to the not-so-healthful foods? Think of the last time you were at a potluck gathering or party, standing before a spread of sugary treats that would never find their way into your own home, let alone your mouth. (It's funny we call them "treats"; is it really a "treat" if it makes you sick? In my more lucid moments I have to ask myself that.) The same goes for liquor or even other things like drugs. What are we to do in such situations apart from extricating ourselves from them entirely and becoming an antisocial rogue animal?

To be honest, I really don't have a reasonable suggestion for that one because we would all like to think of ourselves as being gregarious and open, but then we all have our weaknesses. Forging a set of principles around diet can help. Principles are contracts that we agree with ourselves to live by and they are simply not open for discussion. Remember, a principle is not a "rule" -- rules are more fixed. Some principles can become close to a rule, but by definition they are ideas that we choose to live by.

If you are committed to losing weight and becoming healthier this new year, you may find yourself having to make some serious adjustments not only in terms of diet and exercise, but also in terms of who your friends are and what your activities with them are. Try to create a team of friends and a tool kit of exercises, foods and principles that will support your goal.

Stay tuned for next week's blog post when I'll share some ideas about fasting for weight loss and health!

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