Intermittent Fasting

I am again following the thundering herd of fad diet enthusiasts. After a long holiday season of drinking, eating, and general sloth, I am hopping back on the never-ending weight loss wagon ride. A new year, newfound resolve, and all the rest. Throughout my weight loss adventures, I have utilized many techniques and strategies to achieve my goals. Weight loss is painful for a variety of reasons, and work schedule ranks at the top of the list. Having switched to a job where I can graze on food all day has led to some interesting obstacles. Untangling the multiple variables in my own weight loss equation is a challenge, but I think I may have hit on what I have been missing.

Intermittent fasting is one of the new diet crazes that is being discussed. It has been growing in prominence for the past few years and has recently gained some interesting scholarly research to back up some of its claims. The idea behind intermittent fasting is to glean the benefits of long-term fasts, without the arduous work. They include positive and lasting hormonal changes including, decreased blood insulin levels, an increase of human growth hormone, cellular repair, and changes in gene expression. Human beings, in the not so distant past, did not have round-the-clock access to food as we modern humans do. Going without for periods of time was the norm. The body evolved mechanisms to adapt to that environmental reality. Constant eating throughout the day may foul up our natural biological rhythms, leading to snowballing effect of adverse outcomes.    

Intermittent fasting can take various forms. The simplest is just skipping breakfast. Sleeping counts toward fasting, thus the name “breakfast.” The standard breakdown for this type of intermittent fasting is called 16:8, meaning 16 hours fasting and eight hours feeding. Other variations include the 5:2 fast which consists of two 24 hour fasts and five days of normal eating throughout the week, and another which alternates every other day. There are others as well, but these are the most common.

The alleged benefits of this type of diet lie in the hormonal changes they bring about. Lower blood insulin levels are said to decrease food cravings leading to lower caloric intake, along with switching your body from fat storage to burn state. Increases in human growth hormone are reported to facilitate fat loss along with muscle gain, raising the basal metabolic rate. Furthermore, research suggests other hormonal changes are responsible for shifting the body from cell production to cell repair and changes in gene expression, advancing the body’s natural detox functions, along with positive impacts on aging and immune function.

In reflecting on portions of my weightloss journey, I realized that I had been following this type of diet, albeit loosely.  I have always enjoyed eating large meals and simply could not feel satisfied without eating at least one normal meal a day (full fat, large portion, and seconds if I felt like it). For much of my weight loss, I followed a tip from—what I believe was—the south beach diet. I would eat only lower glycemic index fruits for breakfast, mostly berries. This was essentially a fast with a crutch, so long as you stay 100-200 calories. Lunch would usually consist of a garden salad or roasted vegetables, more fruit in the afternoon, lots of coffee, exercise, and a nice evening meal. This type of schedule would consistently keep me under 2000 consumption calories and exercise was for enjoyment and further positive hormonal effects (I don’t like to focus on calories out so much).

I think I have identified where I went off the rails a bit. Last year I began weightlifting which led me to a realm of nutrition advice that was less than optimal for my goals. I shifted from thinking about calories in and focused more on calories out, ostensibly to build more muscle. I felt that I wouldn’t be able to get as much out of my workout if I wasn’t fueled up. This is where my appetite started to get out of control. Coupled with a work schedule that made it easier to munch throughout the day, I found my hunger patterns becoming increasingly voracious. While this was happening, I was not as focused on the number of calories I was taking in. Calories add up quick, leading to evening situations where I couldn’t have my customary sizeable decadent meal (and maybe some beer or wine).

Trying intermittent fasting again has left me blown away with the difference in my hunger patterns and energy levels. Sometimes I get fleeting hunger pangs, but I can always steel myself with thoughts of what exactly I am going to do to food once I’m in my feeding window. I have been surprised to find that eating around 1800 to 2000 calories is a chore. I come away feeling fuller, longer. I have also noticed higher energy levels, and I am drinking less coffee, springing out of bed earlier, and seeing fewer mood swings and more focus at work.

My goal is to stick with this diet program until May while re-approaching resistance training and perhaps reporting back on the findings. I gained 25 pounds over the course of last year. I knew that I was missing something based on the way I felt, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. How I feel now is the way I felt when I lost most of my weight. I hope the diversion amounts to a concrete lesson. One of the challenges of weight loss is that it is a long-game endeavor, and it’s easy to forget what has worked in the past, as new information is always coming in and goals change. Two steps forward one step back, I suppose.

Real Food

I have spent considerable time revisiting some of the literature that sparked my weight loss journey. Chief among this is the work of Dr. Robert Lustig who has written extensively on the impact of sugar and refined foods on obesity and metabolic diseases, especially in children. I was surprised how much the information resonates, in different ways, on this end of the journey, having done it with some success. This was really the first workable “diet” that I had been on. His message is simply that we should not eat anything that is packaged or processed. For many, this can seem like a monumental task, but once you have done it for a while, it becomes easier to adhere to and more desirable than the typical American diet.

We live in a consumer world. Most food products are designed, not for nutrition, but for shelf life and maximum consumption. There are armies of food scientists and experts working around the clock to bring new foods to the marketplace. These foods, unfortunately, are not being designed to promote good health, but rather profits. Even, if not especially, foods that are marketed as healthier options, tend to be exactly the opposite of what we need to maintain optimum health.

The reality is that we should be eating foods that are as close to their natural state as possible. We have become so efficient at delivering calories that we have outgrown our ability to digest them without incurring ill health effects. Through the industrialized food processing system, we are not only prioritizing the wrong foods but eating foods that have been pre-digested for us. We are outsourcing much of the work of digesting these foods by processing them.

The process of cooking foods is basically a form of digestion. When you cook carrots, for example, you are essentially breaking down long-chain carbohydrates into more easily digestible compounds which your body is then able to process more quickly, leading to quicker blood sugar spikes. When your blood sugar spikes, it causes the release of insulin to bring blood sugar levels back to normal. From what I understand of the role of insulin in our bodies, it can be the driver of many of our weight problems, if not maintained. It simultaneously interrupts the hormonal signals of satiety while triggering fat storage.

When you eat a diet that is closer to the state that it is in nature, you enable your body to do what it has evolved to do—extract energy from food very efficiently. Think of a potato chip. A potato in its natural, raw state is not very calorie dense (in terms of what your body is able to extract) due to its molecular structure. It is composed of long-chain carbohydrate molecules. The process of cooking the potato breaks it down into smaller molecules as stated above, along with the added fat of frying, and the lower density due to the cooking process which saps the water from it. At this point, it is closer to sugar than it is a potato. The body responds to this with a release of insulin, leading to a cascade of negative effects, including insulin resistance and diabetes in the long term. This elevated level of insulin interrupts other hormonal functions in the body. Leptin, which is responsible for triggering satiety, is blocked by insulin, leading to increased hunger. All the while, your body is storing the fat away rather than utilizing it for normal energy purposes. While this scenario is not conclusively held by the medical community, it makes sense to me, based on my experience.

I would welcome people to experiment with observing how they feel after eating different foods. No medical professional is going to recommend that an individual stay away from eating vegetables, so go ahead and eat more of them. Try this for yourself. Everyone knows the lethargic feeling that comes from eating too much food. Think about Thanksgiving dinner, which is typically an onslaught of starchy food; mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, corn, and pie. Many attribute the Thanksgiving “food coma” to the tryptophan in the turkey. The reality is that you flooded your body with energy and there is a cascade of hormonal effects taking place to bring blood sugar back to normal.

Try eating a diet of starchy foods for a week, eating as much as you like. If you are like me, you will be miserable, lethargic, and constantly hungry. Contrast that with the way you feel eating (similarly as much as you like), vegetables, fruits, and meats, for a week. The difference is like night and day. One caveat to consider is that it takes time for your body to adjust to the new way of eating so it may take a little more time to understand the difference in the way you feel.

The main point that I am trying to make here is that real whole foods should be the foundation of our diets. There are some researchers who suggest that many people, who don’t seem overweight, are storing fat around their vital organs, leading to the same risk potential for metabolic disease, except for they don’t know until they have a heart attack unexpectedly in their forties. These researchers suggest that obesity is the appropriate and healthier bodily response to our modern diet.

The recommendation from these researchers, and journalists who disseminate the info to the public at large is very simple. Eat real food. If you are going to eat it, it should look as close to its natural state as possible for optimal health. Take fruit, for example. Fruit contains two types of fiber that work together to form a barrier to absorption in your digestive tract. Fruit juice, while considered by some to be a healthier option than soda, is sugar water. Without the fiber to block the absorption of sugar it is the basically the same thing as soda. Additionally, it eliminates food for your microbiome—fiber. The same thing applies to other processed foods. The processes they undergo to have a lengthy shelf life results in higher caloric density, lower water content, lower fiber content, less flavor without the addition of fat, sugar, or other additives, etc. Another unfortunate consequence of the proliferation of processed foods is that they command a lower price. As consumption goes up, prices go down. Meanwhile, fruits and vegetables must be consumed quickly before they go bad. This leads to a troublesome dynamic where healthy foods become more expensive and less available.

I have had people ask me what the best way to approach an obese loved one is. How do I help them without making them feel bad? Honestly, the biggest thing you can do is adopt the same diet they should. Chances are, you are one of the lucky (or unlucky depending on how you look at it) individuals that are suffering from the hidden ill effects of the modern diet as well. By choosing to eat healthy food, you are setting a positive healthy example, lowering instances where they will be tempted by unhealthy food, circumventing the negative psychology of deprivation that is hindering their progress, driving down healthy food prices, reducing waste, driving up the cost of unhealthy food, and all the while lowering your own chances of developing diabetes, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s (type 3 diabetes some are calling it), and cancer.

Everyone should watch the documentary FedUp. It does a wonderful job of showing how we have organized our food system in a way that is perilous to our health.

Sleep and Weightloss

One aspect of weight loss that often goes underappreciated is sleep. It took me a while to understand why sleep was so important. Nearly any weightloss plan recommends getting appropriate rest, but it is often a side note to exercise and diet. In my experience, sleep keeps everything even-keeled. It is much easier to maintain healthy eating habits when you approach food from a well-rested state of mind. As I have stated in previous articles, you must enjoy the process to stick with it for a long time and see the results. Getting adequate sleep creates a cascade of positive effects, including but not limited to, better mood, more even hunger patterns, better performance when exercising, and a general feeling of well-being.

In today’s world, sleep is one of the first things that we skimp on when life’s demands start to stack up. Whether it’s the work deadline, the unfinished paper, or socializing with friends, sleep inevitably is the easiest thing to cut into. For me, my social life has the biggest impact on my sleep. After working all day and taking care of all the things, it’s easy for me to lapse into late night habits that negatively impact the amount and quality of sleep I get.

I believe there is a cultural attitude toward sleep that leads us to cut into it before anything else. Fundamental to the American psyche is a dedication to the idea of hard work and sacrifice. I think that many people feel guilty about taking pleasure in sleep. Each of us were most likely prodded in our formative years to get up out of bed and get to school during the week. On the weekend it was the same story for recreation, family and community work projects, and religious services. Job schedules in the service economy tend to demand a lot of our sleep schedules. And finally, when we get time off, the last thing we want to do is waste it by sleeping. The lasting message that seems to have stuck with people, is that sleep is a luxury. Recent scientific studies suggest the opposite. It is a necessity.

One under-appreciated detractor from healthy sleep schedules is alcohol consumption. Many people think that alcohol is a good way to relax and fall asleep. It makes you sleepy, sure. But do you ever notice the way you feel the morning after? Part of this is that alcohol interrupts the quality of sleep you get, along with the fact that you tend to stay up longer when you’re out having a few drinks with your buds. Additionally, alcohol is basically poison giving your body a task to process and eliminate it. It contributes to a whole host of ill health effects and is labeled by the World Health Organization as a major contributor to early mortality. Nevertheless, it is culturally accepted and ubiquitous. I am no teetotaler, but I try to keep my alcohol consumption down (with varying degrees of success), not just because it has a lot of calories, but primarily because of the way I feel after I drink, due to sleep deprivation. I can feel the effects of a night of drinking days after. Often after an evening of consumption, I will wake up very early and find myself unable to fall back to sleep. Consistent drinking is the worst thing you can do if you want a healthy sleep regimen.

My general rule for sleep is to make it a priority during the week to get at least eight hours of quality sleep every night. When I first started losing weight, I was on a very strict diet. It was useful because it showed me how it felt to feel rested and healthy (mostly because it cut into my social life). I didn’t realize at the time just how much of an impact sleep deprivation was having on my overall well-being. I was in college full time, had a full-time job, and a robust social life, so I didn’t get good sleep. When I started my first successful diet (this is before I looked at it as a lifestyle), my social life was the thing I decided to cut into. I am glad I did because it gave me a good understanding of the importance of sleep.

There is nothing like waking up in the morning and feeling good. After you prioritize sleep for a couple weeks, you notice a whole host of positive ripple effects. I am prone to anxiety and depression. I have noticed that I have far fewer issues with this when I maintain a good sleep schedule. It is another positive snowball effect that begins to leach into other areas of your life. When I am sleeping well, my hunger patterns are much more level. As I have said before, one of my obstacles has been mindless or “emotional” eating. Sleep is a great tool to use against this because it goes directly to the root of the problem. You will find that eating well and getting adequate sleep have a symbiotic relationship that makes you feel like a superhero.

If you are trying to lose weight, focus on creating healthy sleep habits. If you make it a priority, you will find that it is that necessary link that helps to boost both your exercise and diet routines. Make your bedroom your sanctuary and indulge in sleep.

 

Long-Term Thinking

A common experience when striving toward weight loss, is a sense that you aren’t making any progress. It is hard to tell if what you are doing is making any difference. The scale isn’t moving, your buttons are about to pop, and all the while, you’re living as close to an ascetic lifestyle as you can muster. Frustration and despair set in. All the while, junk food is singing its siren song. One mess up and you abandon the entire enterprise as a hopeless failure. All this stems from a lack of appreciation for the crucial element of time. Nobody gains 20 pounds overnight, and nobody loses it overnight either. As with most other aspects of the process, you can use this to your benefit or detriment. It is a mighty double-edged sword.

I have found that using the knowledge that it takes a long time to lose weight, is a powerful way to stave off the crushing despair that sets in, inevitably, throughout the process. There is nothing quite like perfectly managing your calorie intake, and consistently hitting your exercise goals, only to find that the scale hasn’t budged. If you quickly catch that thought and interpret it through the correct lens, it can disintegrate the feeling of hopelessness. Many people (myself included) deny themselves the satisfaction of a job well done because they don’t allow themselves the time to see the results. If you expect to work out super hard and diet for a couple weeks, and see all the weight melt off, you aren’t going to. The body is not designed to lose or gain weight quickly, and if it does, it is often a sign of problems. Seriously, if you are losing or gaining weight quickly, you should see a doctor.

One of the frustrating things about this reality is that time moves much quicker when you are having fun. That is why it can seem like you blink and gain 20 pounds. So how do you hack this cycle? Find ways to look at it positively. Simple shifts in the way you look at the process can make this a very positive thing. There have been times where I know that I have been doing well and that I should see results. I would hop on the scale in the morning, and be consumed with rage that the scale didn’t move! I punched a hole in my bedroom door one morning that now serves as a handy reminder of this. Every time I see it, I become encouraged.

Weight tends to come on and off in a spectrum. For me, that spectrum can range up to nine pounds. I have literally dropped nine pounds overnight, all in water weight. Every time I hop on the scale and see stagnation or even a small drop, I remind myself that the nine-pound window may be traveling downward without me realizing it. I quickly assess whether I have been faithful to my routine, and rest easy in the knowledge that I am heading downward. This is an exercise in faith. If you have faith in the process and stick to it regardless of what the scale or your goal clothes say, you are going to see results.

Understanding and accepting the realities of weight loss is crucial to the process. Making time your friend is the only way to see lasting results. Part of this goes back to the hedonic treadmill concept. If you really want to make the process work, you must find ways to make it enjoyable. If you are forcing yourself to do what it takes, time is going to drag on and become your enemy. If you are depriving yourself of good food (the right foods prepared well) fun activities (whatever physical activities, you do enjoy) it’s going to seem like an impossible task. I can’t stress enough the importance of enjoying the process. Find ways to enjoy it and time becomes a wind in your sails. Instead of approaching the scale on “weigh day” with dread, approach it with confidence. I am always amazed at how the scale seems to surprise me when I do this. It has the added benefit of making you more faithful in the process which adds more wind behind the sails. Next thing you know, you’ve dropped a substantial amount of weight, and you feel “normal.” People will say, “good work” and I’ll immediately think, “what work?”

Compartmentalize your goals. I make my goals in five to ten-pound increments. This dispels some of the negative psychology that makes the enterprise seem impossible. Losing five pounds isn’t that hard at all. Run through that cycle 10 times and, voila, you’ve lost 50 pounds. It’s important to set realistic goals to make the time component a friend rather than a foe.

Portion Control

The very words, “portion control,” will send shivers up the spine, at least they do for me. This is the standard advice of doctors and nutrition experts, and it is absolutely correct. Huh? What about those lemon cleanses and juice diet fads that cleanse toxins and burn fat? Yeah, they work because you are putting your body into a calorie deficit. If they don’t work, it’s not because your body is unresponsive, it’s because you are likely oblivious to how many calories you are consuming (you’re eating other things). Or you are defying the laws of physics. I’m not a doctor, so I can’t speak to diseases that won’t allow you to lose weight, but in my experience, thinking that my body defied the rules got me into a lot of trouble. Part of this is the negative psychology that occurs when you mindfully restrict your calorie intake. As I’ve said before, we are literally eating machines. It is what we are designed to do. This creates a conundrum. If you want to lose weight, you must accept the fundamental fact that you will not lose weight without running a calorie deficit. But restricting calorie intake is something that requires a degree of subtlety and knowledge to obtain a benefit.

I would say that rule number one with calorie restrictions is to shift your mindset from, “this is all I get today,” to “how much do I need right now, knowing that I am going to be eating all day long.” When I approach food from the former mindset, I (unwittingly) load up my plate like I am not going to eat for the rest of the day, setting myself up for a situation where I am going to have to rely on self-control later on. Bad idea. As a rule, you are always going to eat more at night if you are inclined to social interaction. “Hey, come have dinner and a few drinks,” then I’m like, “OK.” If I am operating under a large enough calorie deficit, I have room for this. I have found that it is far better, for me at least, to approach calorie restriction from the latter mindset.

I really try to think about eating. The first thing I will do when I am ready to prepare a meal is reach for a piece of fruit because I am inclined to munching in the kitchen, especially if I am hungry. It will generally contain fewer calories and give me the ability to sidestep the former mindset and the tendency to gorge myself because that is the default setting. Now that my hunger is addressed, I am able to start thinking in terms of flavor. What flavors do I want to experience? This is an important psychological part of satiety. Food should be a primary source of pleasure in your life. Again, we are designed that way. I then go about giving myself that flavor experience in the smallest portion size possible.

For illustrative purposes, I’ll use the example of an omelet. From the former mindset, I will make an omelet with four eggs, two sausage patties, cheese, and lots of butter (unwittingly, mind you). All the while I’m picking in the high-calorie ingredients (cheese, sausage, etc.), easily totaling over 1000 calories, half my allowance for the day. When the omelet is done, I scarf it down with little appreciation. Part of this is because my psychological state is leading me to rush. I feel nervous and guilty, rushing to get the deed done. I will only be satisfied for about an hour under those circumstances. In the latter state, I will be munching on fruit, and basically cut everything in half, serve it on a smaller plate, and eat much slower. There are a million psychological factors that can contribute to me settling in either mindset, but if I’m paying attention and reasonably unstressed, I can recognize where I’m at in time to change course. Sometimes, even if I do manage to make the decision to make a smaller portion, I head back for seconds, because it looks small, and I’m still hungry. This is where using vegetables to “inflate” the size of your food comes in handy. It is important to be aware of your mental state because it creates the food choice foundation for the rest of the day. It is important to be aware of your mindset at every meal, the day doesn’t end until you are sleeping. If you overeat, you are going to have to exercise self-control to resist the very natural urge to eat for the rest of the day. This quickly turns into a negative cycle.

I think the best indicator of whether you should be eating or not is your level of stress or nervousness. I like to channel those emotions through exercise, or other pleasurable activities, and then come back to food when I’m feeling calmer and more aware. For people without weight problems, this may seem ridiculous to the point of hilarity, but it is a real struggle. It is not hard for me to crush 5000 or more calories throughout the day without even thinking about it. I basically fail to appreciate how much food I’m eating if I don’t slow down and really focus on enjoying it. Part of that is in preparation. I can make all my reward systems (taste, smell, texture, knowing that my diet is on track etc.), go off by really nailing how something is cooked. If it’s cooked very well, I enjoy it much more, which hits the “you’re satisfied” button. If I don’t get that button pushed by quality, my mind quickly shifts, subconsciously, to quantity, and I’m ravenous for the rest of the day. Part of this likely lies in the element of time. You must allow your body to react to food for the hormonal responses to tell you that you are full. In our society, that is difficult because we don’t linger around food. We eat and quickly get back to “more important things.” Eating this way will leave me in the same psychological state as if I hadn’t eaten at all. Ravenous!

A cool trick for portion control (which I touched on briefly before) is to use calorie dense foods as flavoring elements for vegetables. This gives you all the flavor rewards without the excess calories, essentially “inflating” the size of your meal. My brussels sprout recipe is a great example of this (recipe section on CMherald.com). I can have a whopping serving of those and still come out having consumed only 500 calories. If I really focus on the technique of cooking them, or finding a new way to prepare them, that provides an artistic satisfaction that further eliminates my desire to consume food in excess. I come out stuffed along with the psychological satisfaction I get from eating a full plate of food. I really load up on the veggies, and never shy away from eating them. If I am even slightly hungry, I will reach for that first, with gusto. Once again, it’s about weaponizing the inborn desire for pleasure against your weight. Diversifying the pleasurable aspects of food to include things such as artistic expression, novelty, and the smartass feeling you get when you know you have cheated the system. You essentially are having your cake and eating it too.

The Cult of Exercise

We have a cultural obsession with exercise. Somehow, we have come to view exercise as the silver bullet for obesity. The marketing of exercise programs sends a subtle but powerful message that everyone who is obese is simply lazy and unmotivated. That message is echoed everywhere, including the doctor’s office. Every year gym memberships surge as a herd of pudgy people resolve to start exercising. That resolve usually doesn’t last long, and many of them end up quitting. Why? Because for many, exercise is simply not very fun. Not only is it not very fun, it is not super effective for weight loss to begin with. This is one of the powerful forces working against people who are trying to lose weight. The entire exercise field is riddled with landmines. Among the largest is this perception of exercise.

running-runner-long-distance-fitness-40751The biggest issue with exercise is that we think it as more effective than it is. To put it simply, unless you are working out or exerting energy all day long, it is not an effective weight loss option. For those of us who aren’t athletes, construction workers, or otherwise, this kind of thinking leads to negative outcomes that begin working symbiotically to sideline our progress. If you consume a single candy bar, you are going to have to run for over an hour to burn off those calories. Most of the calories you burn in a day are set. Those are the calories it takes to keep your basic bodily functions running. Only a fraction of the total calories burned in a day is going to be affected by exercise. From my experience, penciling in an hours-worth of exercise can be extremely difficult. Maintaining that hours-worth of exercise over a long period of time is even more challenging, and you must maintain that dedication over a long period of time to see results. So not only are we putting our weightloss eggs in the wrong basket, we are also setting ourselves up for a psychological state that is negative. In no way am I trying to say that exercise is not important. It is vitally important, just not for the reasons you would think.

Just as food should be enjoyable, so should exercise. Just as fostering a taste for healthy food is difficult, so is fostering a taste for exercise. Just as looking at food as simply calories-in, calories-out, can be negative, so is looking at exercise as a way to burn excess calories. Losing weight takes time and the only way you are going to keep at it long enough to see results, is to enjoy it. Relying on exercise to burn excess calories can fail to address overconsumption on the front end and often leads to overconsumption on the back end. It is a mechanical way to look at exercise that is all wrong.

The best exercise is the one that you will do, every day, for your entire life. For people who are morbidly obese (as I was), walking is about the only form of exercise you can engage in without it being painful and embarrassing.  My advice for exercise is to find the kind that is most enjoyable to you and engage in it every day without fail. For me, it started with nature walks and turned into hiking as my abilities increased. Focus on limiting your caloric intake by drastically increasing your fruit and vegetable intake (and finding ways to prepare them deliciously) which will effectively crowd calorie dense foods out of your diet. Find ways to make exercise a response to negative environmental factors instead of food. Stressed? Take a walk. Angry? Take a walk. Hungry? Take a walk before you eat. Happy? Take a walk. This is a part of Hedonic Treadmill concept of diversifying pleasure sources. Once you condition yourself to exercise as an enjoyable proposition, you can lean on it as a source for happiness.

The way we view exercise is negative, in large part, because of the expectations of what exercise is supposed to look like. This is dictated to us by advertisements, tv shows, and the numerous exercise communities that vie for our patronage. In most cases, you are seeing fit people doing fit-people things. When this is the standard you are reaching for, the focus shifts from your abilities to aspirations of their abilities. One of the most profound understandings I stumbled upon was the fact that I was carrying the equivalent of a 200 plus pound weight around with me at all times. Strap a 200-pound weight on any athlete and see how fast they can waddle around. If you are viewing exercise success as the ability to run a five-minute mile with a 200-pound weight on, then the problem might be self-inflicted. Nobody can do that. If you are obese, you have a built-in advantage: resistance. Every move you make is a weighted exercise. When we aspire to insane feats of athleticism, which take insane dedication to training over long periods of time, no wonder we aren’t having a good time! When we beat ourselves up because we don’t have athletic bodies that can do athletic things, it turns negative very quickly, leading to a loss of motivation and failure to engage over the long-haul.

The main benefit you are going to see from exercise is in your mood and general well-being. It gives you a general feeling of wellness that, if fostered by good diet and sleep, turns into a positive feedback loop. When you exercise, there is a cascade of positive hormonal effects. You achieve those effects by pushing yourself to reasonable levels. Like I said, those athletes aren’t weighed down so they must go to greater lengths to push their bodies to that pleasurable state. This is easier to see once you stick to exercise for a while. I gradually went from agonizing nature walks to running up a mountain. Both required roughly the same level of physical exertion relative to body composition. Focus on what you can do, not others. Focus on challenging yourself instead of aspiring to the challenges of others. Find ways to make it fun. I enjoy alone time, whether active or not. I like to engage in a lot of sedentary activities. Find ways to integrate them. If you like reading books, get an Audible account and walk, run, bike, hike, skate, or otherwise. There are many new technological tools to help with integration. Turn exercise into the thing you do to escape for a while. That is what most athletes are doing. If the thing you do to unwind after a hard day is, say, drinking a couple beers, you are doing the same thing that athletes are doing. You’re altering your mental state. They are not exercising because they enjoy pain. It’s called runners “high” for a reason. Approach exercise as something pleasurable and work within your boundaries.

Maximizing Pleasure, Minimizing Negative Consequences

When approaching food from a weight loss perspective, there is always a nagging sense that you are heading into a battle. Nobody ever talks about dieting as fun. I have come to consider dieting to be necessarily bad. One of the big new buzzwords that nutrition gurus use is ‘lifestyle.’ What does that mean though? There is a massive gulf between the meaning of the terms diet and lifestyle, despite the synonymous usage. Diets are short-term runs, often focused on deprivation. You focus on a range of foods to exclude, and you try your very best to stay on track, all the while being tempted by every side by all the tantalizing, waist-enhancing foods we have come to love and simultaneously hate. Lifestyles are different. I now understand the term to mean a long-term positive relationship with food, a long-term relationship where you come to radically honest terms with what your eating habits are, how different foods make you feel, and what psychological need food meets for you.

This may seem hopelessly vague, but it was a huge epiphany for me after struggling with the yo-yo of dieting, losing a little, and gaining back even more for most of my life. Each dieting phase would inevitably result in a net gain over the long haul. As I write, I am coming off a three-month period where I slipped back into the dieting mindset, resulting in weight gain. It is an odd situation. I started looking at food as an enemy rather than a friend, which led to a cycle of deprivation, inevitably followed by overconsumption. It’s hard to tell if you are in the negative cycle sometimes. The best indicator is understanding how you feel when you are eating food. Do you feel regretful after eating? Chances are, you’re in a dieting mindset. Food should never elicit negative emotions; it keeps us alive and healthy. The trick is to identify foods that don’t make you feel good, and rather than vilify them, put them in the background while celebrating foods that do make you feel healthy, cultivating a wider understanding of flavors and celebrating them in abundance.

Throughout our history as a species, our entire existence has revolved around two things: food and procreation. Food is the more important of the two as there is no procreation without it. Most of our time had been spent on hunting, gathering, plowing, sowing, reaping, milling, cooking, preserving, and most importantly, eating food. In a world where there were far fewer forms of entertainment, food often filled that space as well. We are hard-wired to enjoy food. I cannot back it up with any sort of scientific proof, but I firmly believe that there is a psychological element to satiety, that is annihilated when you approach food as an enemy.

So, what does a healthy lifestyle look like in actuality? For this, I take some direction from history. Seasonal eating is essential. Why? Because that’s when foods taste best. How could we possibly expect fruits and vegetables to compete with other less healthy options when they are out of season. When our food systems were more localized, we ate seasonally because there was no other choice. There were no supermarkets. A huge portion of the population worked on farms and depended on their farms and the surrounding land for food. We were forced to find ways to prepare whatever was in season or go without. This led to many of the food traditions that we celebrate today. Bacon, for example, comes from a tradition of preserving meat by curing in salt and smoking. The family pig was slaughtered in the fall, preserved, and expected to last throughout the winter. Bacon became, along with ham and sausages, a flavoring agent and accent for a diet that consisted mostly of root vegetables, grains, and other preserved foodstuffs. In spring, early vegetables and fruits became the most sensible and desirable options. In the summertime, a whole host of new produce came into season. Same for the fall. And the cycle continues.

Many encounters we modern humans have with fresh fruits and vegetables are negative. The tomato is perhaps the finest example of this problem. The pithy bland characteristics of commercially grown tomatoes are nothing to celebrate. Garden fresh, seasonal tomatoes, are a reason to celebrate, quickly sending your eyes rolling back far in their sockets with rapt pleasure. We have tricked ourselves into thinking that fruits and vegetables are less desirable, and there is no reason to “enjoy” them in any substantive quantity. They are simply filler—an accoutrement for more tasty things, that happen to be highly processed, nutritionally deficient, and extremely dense, calorically speaking.

I am not making the argument that we should go back to the old times of feast or famine, but that we can use that knowledge to help us better understand how to take the fullest and healthiest advantage of the food system we have today. This takes a wider cultural dedication to good food. Luckily, we have the internet and a whole host of good resources, including local farmers, gardeners, and growers to help us strike this balance between the old and new food systems, and find ways to better our health.

You must start cooking and dedicating a good portion of your daily attention to the substance that provides life and health to create the lifestyle. This provides you with the ability to create food that is genuinely delicious and healthy. I always get a little offended at the notion that healthfulness requires a compromise in flavor. But the idea is so pervasive that I find myself falling victim to it, four years into the journey, as I stated earlier. There is an uphill battle to be fought in changing our understanding of food. It takes exposure to more good food to appreciate the wealth of pleasure to be had from healthful food. It takes innovation and dedication. Sadly, our modern lives and the cultural narratives we are exposed to don’t always accommodate that.

Because we have eaten commercially grown unseasonable food for most of our lives, those are the flavor experiences imprinted on our minds. We must work to exorcise those bad impressions, stumbling around blindly for a while before finding the vegetable experience that supersedes the bad (or often just lackluster) mental impression. Four years ago, I would eat a salad and pick nearly every vegetable out, because I found them to be unpalatable. A perfect example of this is the green bell pepper, which I found to be bitter and unpleasant. It took a considerable amount of time, trying them in different forms, before I came to understand their deliciousness. Rather than trying them in just salads, I branched out, adding them to different preparations. Ethnic food traditions are great for this because they can introduce cooking techniques and flavor combinations that are absolutely transformative. Try making any Cajun dish substituting red bell pepper for green bell pepper (a member of the “trinity” along with onion and celery), and you will quickly understand what I am talking about. There are many ways to approach those flavors, and some of those gradually lead to an appreciation of the ingredient in other forms. I distinctly remember the first time I really appreciated the raw flavor of a green bell pepper. It was picked from a local garden and served in a vegetable platter (of all things) something that I would never have even thought about trying previously, let alone with the expectation that it would be a pleasurable encounter. My mind was blown! With that flavor expectation cemented in my mind, even the common store varieties began to conform to this idealized version rather than my previous mental association. Flash forward to today when a chunky Greek salad, chock full of green bell peppers, which formerly would have been reprehensible to me, is one of the most splendid things in the world. A veritable blitzkrieg of flavors and textures that expand the mind as it fills the stomach.

The satisfaction I derive from this type of meal, although completely different than the satisfaction you would derive from, say, a burger and fries, is intense. It is also more multi-dimensional. I inevitably learned to savor a much wider range of flavors and textures, along with a sparkly clean feeling following eating.

The main point that I am trying to make here is that pleasure is an integral part of the eating experience. Eating is the action that sustains life; therefore, pleasure is something that is inherent to life. To deny oneself of pleasure in the consumption of food is to deny oneself of life. Dramatic maybe, but I have found it to be true. I find it to be especially true when I forget this lesson. Looking back on three months of struggling against pleasure from food, I find that all the while, I was still seeking pleasure, just the wrong kind. The need doesn’t go away. It builds up until the dam breaks and you are going after the wrong kinds of food. Instead of sourcing good seasonal fruits and vegetables, preparing them with care, and partaking in abundance, I bought into a lie. Reading a news article that decried the overconsumption of fruits is where I went wrong. They made the claim that their high sugar content was cause for restriction. I looked at the numbers, thought about it, and decided to limit my intake of those foods and eat more protein. But be wary, the article said, don’t eat too much protein. I stopped looking at food with respect and happiness and looked at it as simply a numbers game. I quickly realized that I was constantly ravenous. No matter how much I ate, it was never enough. In reflection, I realized that I was going to foods that, although delicious, had negative health consequences.

Too often we ascribe far too much importance to sacrificial actions. Starving ourselves and denying ourselves the pleasures of certain foods is perceived to be virtuous in our culture. This is where we go wrong. This is why dieting is wrong. Pleasure is the compass which guides us to good health. The problem is that our general understanding of pleasure, as it relates to food specifically, is myopic and perverse. Eating highly processed, carb-laden, fatty foods, may scintillate the taste buds, but when examined from a higher vantage point, we are exchanging a wide world of pleasurable culinary experiences for a narrow range of experiences that provide only short-term bursts of wild pleasure that give way to sickness and long-term ill health. A negative snowball effect that alienates us from the wider world of healthful pleasure that we are designed to inhabit. In devoting myself to a more hedonistic, and therefore natural, approach to food, I have been able to place “unhealthy foods” where they belong in my diet. Where might that be? On the fringes. They are no longer off limits. They remain among my many options, but with the understanding that there are negative outcomes that come with over-consumption. This eliminates the perception that we are “missing out” which plants the seed for failure.