by guest author Jude Mahood, nutritionist and yoga teacher
The first part of this article described the way yoga practice is thought to result in weight loss. In summary, weight loss may be the direct result of vigorous regular practice or it may be indirectly related to the cultivation of mindfulness.
An important point to reiterate is that successful weight loss is more likely to happen if yoga practice is combined with sound weight loss strategies.
I have to be very clear at the outset that I am not talking about following the latest diet craze. You go on a diet, you lose weight, you go off the diet, you gain the weight back, plus a little extra. And then it all starts again with the next “in” diet.
This pattern of yo-yo dieting can be very damaging and makes it more difficult for future weight loss to occur. No one disputes the fact that fad diets result in rapid weight loss. In reality, losing weight is easy for most people, but the really hard part is keeping the weight off. With many of the fad diets more muscle, glycogen and water is lost than fat. The loss of glycogen and water leaves you feeling flat, listless and tired (Do I really have the energy for my yoga class tonight?) and the loss of muscle tissue leads to a drop in metabolic rate.
The lower metabolic rate makes it easier to gain weight because you don’t need as many kcal to support the slowed down body functions. It’s obvious why weight gain is inevitable when you return to your regular eating habits. Another problem with some fad diets is that the foods that are avoided can have a negative effect on your mental status.
For example, diets that encourage a very low carbohydrate intake may lead to a drop in serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (a chemical that transfers a message from the end of one nerve to the beginning of the next nerve) and is involved with appetite reduction and mood. Low levels lead to increased appetite and low mood.
Two physicians, Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz, have appropriately coined serotonin as the “James Brown” of neurotransmitters because it makes you feel good! (Prozac is an anti-depressant medication that works by increasing levels of serotonin in the body, so think of carbohydrate foods as being your own dose of Prozac).
Hopefully, by now, you will have arrived at your own conclusion to abolish the word “diet” from your vocabulary. Think instead about making changes that are gradual, do-able and enjoyable. Otherwise, you won’t stick with them.
The best place to begin, before thinking specifically about food, is to go back to the concept of mindfulness that was discussed in part one. I think that a really useful tool to use at the beginning of any weight loss attempt is a hunger scale. It helps you to differentiate between true hunger and other non-hunger related reasons for eating. It kind of forces you to become mindful until it is established as an ingrained habit.
There are variations of the basic hunger scale that you can download from websites but I also think it’s good to make your own so that you can personalize it. You will soon find out if you are eating in the absence of true hunger. If your mindfulness reveals that you are eating to satisfy emotional needs, hopefully this discovery will encourage you to explore more effective and healthy ways of dealing with emotions such as boredom, loneliness, or happiness.
If internalizing leads you to discover that you really are hungry go ahead and eat. But you have to stay mindful while you are eating. I’m sure you have all had the experience of eating without even tasting your food or taking notice of what or how much you ate. You’re watching TV and before you know it, the whole package of potato chips is gone and you have soared to the top of your hunger scale (the point where you look green and promise to never look at another chip again).
Being distracted is a common cause of overeating. You can’t be distracted and mindful at the same time so turn the TV or computer off when you are eating. Really connect instead with the experience of eating. Chew slowly, discover the different tastes and textures of your food, swallow with awareness, and put down your fork between bites.
It takes about 20 minutes for the message to get from your stomach to the satiety centre in the brain telling you that you are full. Eating quickly means that you can get a heck of a lot of food in before the message gets to the brain, and by then it’s too late if you’ve already shot way past the “satisfied” point on your hunger scale. So slow it down and be in the present moment while you eat.
And now onto the question of what you should be eating if you want to lose weight. The advice that I always give is quite simple: eat and drink regularly (and this means not skipping meals), eat lots of variety and honor Mother Nature.
Research shows that people who eat irregularly and skip meals, particularly breakfast, are the ones who are likely to be overweight. The word breakfast means “to break the fast”. Your body knows that it’s been awhile since there was food on board and it doesn’t know when food will next arrive, so in response, everything gets slowed down to conserve energy.
The body is very clever in this way. If it senses starvation, it will do all it can to make you survive, and this means slowing the metabolism. But if you are trying to lose weight, lowering your metabolism is counter-productive. You want to be revving it up and “breaking the fast” is one way to do this. And it is not just the lowered metabolism that makes weight loss difficult.
When you skip meals, will power can only carry you so far. Eventually you will give in to your hunger signals and the end result is usually binge eating. And once binge eating sets in there is a “Well I’ve blown it now, so why not keep going” attitude that takes over. So you don’t want to even go there. Do yourself a favor and have breakfast.
Having breakfast also makes it more likely that you will meet your fibre needs. And if you want to be serious about weight loss, you need to make friends with fibre. Think of fibre as a sponge. When you eat foods that contain fibre they attract water and swell. The swelling gives you a sensation of feeling full. Breakfast foods that include whole grain bread or cereal and fruit are good fibre choices. Chocolate chip muffin and coffee – not a great choice. Muesli with chopped up fruit on top – great choice.
When it comes to breakfast cereals, spend some time reading labels, and go for a cereal that has at least 6-8 grams per 100grams. The same goes for bread, get into the habit of reading labels and go for the higher fibre ones. The differences between brands can be quite significant.
Another thing about fibre is that it helps with control of your blood sugar level. You might wonder what this has got to do with weight loss. Carbohydrate foods that are digested and absorbed slowly have a better impact on blood sugar levels than foods that are quickly digested and absorbed. We refer to the slowly digested ones as low glycaemic index (GI for short) foods and the ones that are digested quickly as the high glycaemic index ones.
Because high GI foods are absorbed quickly, blood sugar levels rise quickly as the sugar enters your bloodstream. The pancreas responds by sending out a big amount of insulin. Insulin works hard to shift the sugar out of the bloodstream into your muscles or fat cells for storage. Because so much insulin was released, the blood sugar level drops quite low. The low blood sugar signals the satiety centre that you are hungry.
So what does this look like in practice? You eat a high GI food (think back to the chocolate chip muffin) and you temporarily feel quite energetic. But not too much later you begin to feel quite lethargic and tired and maybe even grumpy (the surge of insulin has lowered your blood sugar levels to the point where your satiety centre is letting you know). You grab another high GI food and on it goes again. You spend your day going from one extreme to the other: bouncing off the walls with energy when your blood sugar is high and feeling totally uninspired, flat and ravenous when your blood sugar is low.
You’ve probably worked it out by now that when it comes to carbohydrate foods, it is the low GI ones that you should be searching for. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that “carbs” are bad for you and will make you gain weight. Focus instead on eating low GI carbs.
Getting back to fibre, foods that are high in fibre tend to have a low GI, particularly if the fibre is intact. When you buy bread, go for ones where you can see the wholegrains. The more the food is refined, the higher the GI will become. If you can see the wholegrain kernels, the GI will be low. If the bread has been refined so that the wholegrains are crushed or not visible, or there are no wholegrains at all (eg white flour) the GI will be higher.
That’s one of the reasons why I suggest that you honor Mother Nature. Foods in their natural state (eg unrefined) will tend to offer more nutrition, contain more fibre, have less fat and be lower on the GI scale. GI can be hard to understand and you can’t always tell by looking at a food if it will be high or low GI. Foods are ranked on the GI scale from 0-100 and a food is considerer low GI if the value is less than 55. Table sugar, for example, has a GI of 61 (medium) whereas jasmine rice has a GI of 109 (high). Who would ever think that some rice has a higher GI than sugar! For those who would like to delve more deeply into the science of GI have a look at the GI website.
But as a general guideline, carbohydrate foods that are the lowest GI of all are legumes- good old chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans – pure Mother Nature at its’ best. Legumes contain a type of fibre called soluble fibre that lowers the GI regardless if they are intact or crushed. Other low GI foods are; most fruits, vegetables, wholegrains (eg barley, oats, basmati rice) wholegrain breads and cereals, and dairy products like yoghurt and milk.
This is one of the reasons why I think that variety is important. Variety also ensures that all of your nutrient needs are met so that your body, particularly your immune system, is in optimal condition. You want to be feeling energetic and radiant, and shouldn’t have to sacrifice feeling good just to lose weight.
This reminds me of a client from many years ago, who taught me an important lesson that I have never forgotten.
We were meeting on a weekly basis while she was attempting to lose weight. On one particular day, she came bouncing into my office, beaming from cheek to cheek, feeling and looking like a million dollars. We talked for awhile and then she asked to be weighed. She then discovered that she had not lost any weight that week. Immediately everything changed. She looked angry, got really sullen and began talking very negatively about herself and the weight loss journey.
Instead of focusing on how she was feeling, she let something external take over. I tried to bring her back to how she felt before she jumped on the scales- full of energy, vibrant, glowing from within, positive – but it didn’t work.
A few weeks later I was reading something by another nutritionist, Andrew Cate, and he said that it was important to;
Not let that inaccurate piece of outdated junk [the scales] determine how you feel for the day. The scales are much better off in the garbage bin than under your feet.
And from that point on, I encouraged my clients to “internalize” to determine how they felt, and to rely less and less on scales.
In summary, if you’re serious about weight loss, do it by staying mindful, eating regularly, widening your food vocabulary, and eating your food as Mother Nature intended it to be eaten. Don’t rely on external forces to determine your mood and keep up your yoga practice.