This article was first published in My Yoga Online.
With the growing rates of obesity in our society, combined with the tendency for most people who successfully lose weight to gain it back only a short while later, it’s obvious that something is flawed in our society’s general weight-loss strategy.
I’ve personally struggled with weight my entire life. It’s taken a life-time of self-study combined with an education in naturopathic medicine to begin to understand the intricate balance of achieving lasting weight-loss. Here are 7 simple truths to invoke when contemplating whether to strive for our culture’s most common health goal.
1) Lasting weight loss comes from a place of self-love. Weight loss is often portrayed in the media as a war on the body. Many popular weight-loss programs encourage us to force our bodies to change: punishing them with intense exercise and depriving them with extremely low-calorie diets. However, statistics show that, while this may result in weight-loss in the short-term, the vast majority of successful weight-losers will eventually gain everything back. Naturopathic doctors believe that the reason for this poor retention rate is that the process of losing weight has only served to reaffirm self-hatred. By engaging in the self-criticism our society deems necessary in order to lose weight, we fail to address the root cause of our weight-gain, which is commonly a lack of self-love and self-respect. Instead of declaring war on fat cells, focus on the experience of being in your body, using deep breathing, meditation, positive affirmation and yoga. It’s important to make healthy lifestyle changes that stem from a place of self-love, honouring hunger and tiredness, rather than suppressing and pushing past them. The result of increasing the love and acceptance we have for ourselves is a greater connection to our bodies and an improved state of wellbeing that will endure for the rest of our lives.
2) It is important to address the energetic aspects of weight-loss. The fat, or adipose tissue, on our bodies is neither psychologically, nor metabolically inert. Fat cells alter the way our bodies regulate blood sugar and hormones, they even act as a reservoir for the toxins that our bodies are exposed to. While losing weight may be indicated for our health, we often fail to recognize the impact that losing weight has on our psychological, emotional and physical state. I once heard a story about a woman who would successfully lose weight only to quickly gain it back. Her naturopathic doctor asked her why she thought she was having such a hard time keeping the weight off, asking her what she thought the excess weight represented to her. She replied that her excess weight represented “a down comforter.” It then became clear that the extra weight on her body was providing her with comfort and protection and she was not emotionally ready to part with it. Excess body fat can serve to claim space for us in the world, to buffer us from vulnerability or to even represent a reluctance to let go of things. Before attempting to lose weight, it is important to ask ourselves what emotional needs the extra weight we carry is fulfilling and then learn to meet those needs in healthier ways. Dealing with the energetic effects of losing excess body weight is a crucial step for being able to move forward.
3) Managing and reducing stress is crucial. Many weight-loss programs promise quick and drastic results. However, one of the common weight-loss mistakes many people make is eating too few calories or engaging in extreme exercise over a long period of time. While drastically cutting calories will result in quick fat loss (and also lean tissue loss, like muscle) over the short-term, it will impede fat loss in the long run. A healthy rate of weight-loss is about 1-2 pounds per week. Losing weight any faster than this can put the body into a state of deprivation and starvation, inflict physical stress on the body and, thereby, activate the stress response. Increased stress has a slew of hormonal and metabolic effects that interfere with losing weight. The stress hormone, cortisol, becomes activated, which mobilizes fat tissue and deposits it into the abdomen and face, while increasing sugar cravings. The stress response can also act to depress the activity of the thyroid gland, producing less metabolism-boosting thyroid hormones, slowing metabolism and causing weight regain. For lasting fat loss, it’s important to be gentle on the body. A minor caloric deficit and moderate exercise, such as simple walking or yoga, is shown to have far more of a beneficial effect in the long-term than any intensive, short-term weight-loss program.
4) Any changes that are made are made for life. Every now and then, a period of unhealthy eating makes me want to clean up my act by following a fairly strict diet for a few days. However, I need to remind myself that, while cleanses and detoxes are great for eliminating the build-up of toxins and giving the digestive system a break, when it comes to lasting weight loss, we shouldn’t make changes to our diet or lifestyle that we wouldn’t feel comfortable sticking with for life. Life is full of highs and lows; exams, the holidays and New Year’s, birthday parties and long weekends away are a part of life. Through it all we go through times where we eat too many helpings of cake, drink too much and often don’t have time to exercise. Learning to navigate the dirty waters of life in healthy ways is a wellness skill in and of itself. I believe that making small changes that can be sustained for years, such as reserving to eat more green leafy vegetables or reducing refined sugar intake, are more important changes for weight loss than short periods of intense dietary deprivation. Remember that no matter how great a short-term cleanse sounds, once we resort to our old ways, most or all of the weight we’ve lost will come back. However, if we can succeed in making small, healthy changes over time, any benefits we reap from these small actions will remain with us for life.
5) Eat fat to lose fat: healing is done with whole foods. In every grocery store there lies a tempting array of “low-calorie” snacks that are often processed, high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and contain chemical additives to replace higher-calorie food ingredients, like fat. However, a common piece of advice that most naturopathic doctors give patients who are trying to lose weight is to increase their daily intake of healthy fats. When we increase our dietary fat while decreasing carbohydrate consumption and eliminating sugar consumption, we send our body the message that we are not depriving it of important calories. Fat is no longer seen as the antithesis of fat loss; it is a crucial nutrient in the production of cell membranes, brain tissue and hormones. It also aids in the regulation of blood sugar, leading to less blood sugar spikes and junk food cravings. We want to encourage our body to let go of its fat stores by ensuring it that we aren’t neglecting or starving it. Therefore it is important to eat a balanced, nutrient-dense diet consisting of whole, unprocessed foods, rather than low-nutrient, low-calorie processed snack foods.
6) Don’t neglect digestive health for weight-loss. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), weight-gain and obesity are often a result of impaired digestion, specifically due to impairment of the Spleen organ. The Chinese Spleen has a very different function than that of its Western counterpart. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine the Spleen is responsible for converting food to Qi, or energy. Impairment of the TCM Spleen, through excess stress or unhealthy eating, often results in feelings of low-energy, abdominal bloating, irregular bowel movements, brain fog and, eventually, weight-gain. This is because, rather than being converted to energy, food by-products and toxins remain in the body and are stored as fat. When it comes to Traditional Chinese Medicine, obesity is often treated by providing nurturance to the Spleen by engaging in healthy digestive practices. For the most part, this means starting each day with a warm, protein rich breakfast, such as steel-cut oats, and eating cooked foods that are easily digested, like soups and stews, especially in the cold winter months. Refraining from cold, sugary, damp foods, like ice cream, is also important for caring for the Spleen. Maintaining a healthy digestive system allows us to better utilize the nutrients of the food we take in each day.
7) Weight-loss is a side effect, not a primary health goal. It’s almost paradoxical but, when weight-loss is viewed as a simple, but welcome side effect of developing an increasingly healthier lifestyle, weight tends to come off and stay off for life. The most effective way to lose weight and keep it off for life is to make simple changes that contribute to overall wellness. When we care for our bodies by eating more whole foods, decreasing emotional stress and engaging in daily moderate exercise, we find that, not only do we feel more energized, happier, invigorated and more physically fit, after a time we often need a smaller size of pant just as a simple by-product of our efforts. When we adjust our lifestyles to live in a more health-inspired way, I believe that our bodies will gravitate to their natural set-point: the weight at which we look and feel our best. Focusing on creating a healthier overall lifestyle is a more sustainable and healthy goal than simply focusing on weight-loss for appearance’s sake.
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