By Dr. Mercola
Many people have a problem with their relationship with food. Some overeat, others unde reat, and many struggle with their weight despite doing everything right "on paper."
"Sonoma State University allowed me to do an independent study for my master's degree in Eating Psychology. I put an ad in a newspaper that said, 'Graduate student looking to start Eating Psychology study group.' That was the beginnings for me of learning on the job.
I had a group of 20 plus people — a handful of anorexics; a handful of some of the most obese people I'd ever seen; a beautiful model who had an eating disorder; and a handful of women in their 50s who looked fine to me but [spent their] life chronically dieting.
That was my beginnings of starting to understand eating psychology, counseling psychology, and coaching psychology. I looked at all the different modalities, started doing clinical practice, and said, 'OK. What works and what doesn't?'"
Why Does Dieting Oftentimes Fail?
Gradually, over the course of about 15 years, David developed a number of strategies that effectively address weight, body image, overeating, binge eating, emotional eating, and endless dieting.
The key was to distill the science and psychology down into simple, clear, and straightforward strategies that could empower people to take action and get desired results.
For example, many people diet and exercise yet don't lose weight. Why is that? Oftentimes there are secondary complaints that can offer clues.
"Maybe they have digestive issues. Maybe they have mood, irritability, or fatigue. Maybe they have dry skin and dry hair. Then I look at their diet and find that they're eating extremely low-fat.
Now, why are they eating extremely low-fat? They're [doing it] because they have what I call the 'toxic nutritional belief' that 'fat in food equals fat on my body.' That's a piece of nutritional information that they're practicing, using, and abiding by."
The problem with believing and following this myth is that lack of dietary fat may actually be part of why you can't lose weight. One of the signs of essential fatty acid deficiency is weight gain or inability to lose weight.
This seems counter intuitive to many, but the proof is in the pudding, as the saying goes, and if you're not losing weight even though you've cut out nearly all fat, then perhaps it's time to reassess your belief system.
"Then I have to do what I call an intellectual intervention," says. "This is my opportunity to deliver information... and let them know that 'here is where your belief is impacting the goal that you want.'
[I'll tell them] 'let's do an experiment because you've been doing it this way for a dozen years. So now we're going to include more healthy essential fats in your diet for the next several weeks. Then we're going to see how you feel.'"
More often than not, adding healthy fats back into your diet will result in more regular bowel movements, an increased sense of well-being, improved appetite control, and, eventually, weight loss.
Reconnecting to Your Body's Innate Intelligence
Part of the challenge, David notes, is that most people have lost their connection to body intelligence. "There's a brilliant wisdom that's activated once we start to clean up our diet and eat healthier food," he says.
Most people also eat too fast, and this too cuts you off from your body's innate intelligence, so slowing down the pace at which you eat is a very important part of reestablishing this natural connection.
If you're a fast eater, you're not paying attention to the food you're eating, and you're missing what scientists call the cephalic phase digestive response (CPDR).
Cephalic phase digestive response is a fancy term for taste, pleasure, aroma, and satisfaction, including the visual stimulus of your meal. Researchers estimate about 40 to 60 percent of your digestive and assimilative power at any meal comes from this "head phase" of digestion.
"In other words, you look at a food and your mouth starts to water," David explains. "You think of a food and your stomach starts to churn. That's digestion beginning in the mind. When we are not paying attention to the meal, our natural appetite is deregulated. On top of that, eating very fast puts your body in a stress state."
Stress Effectively Hinders Weight Loss
When you put your body in a stress state, you have sympathetic nervous system dominance, increased insulin, increased cortisol, and increased stress hormones.
Not only will this deregulate your appetite, you're also going to eat more, because when your brain doesn't have enough time to sense the taste, aroma, and pleasure from the food, it keeps signaling that hunger has not been satisfied.
You've undoubtedly experienced this at some point: You quickly gorge on a huge meal, but when you're finished, your belly is distended yet you still feel the urge to eat more. At the heart of this problem is eating too quickly, which causes stress. As David explains:
"I want to steer people towards more soulful eating," David says. "Be present. Feel good about what you're doing. Get pleasure from that meal. Taste it. Stress is arguably one of the most common causative or contributing factors to just about any disease, condition, or symptom we know of.
When I can start to help a person slow down with their meal and get in a relationship with their food, first and foremost, what's happening is they're stepping into parasympathetic nervous system dominance.
If you take five to 10 long, slow deep breaths before a meal, or five to 10 long, slow deep breaths before anything you do, you are training your system to drop into the physiologic relaxation response. When I can help somebody drop into that place, magic starts to happen. People start to go, 'Oh my goodness, I paid attention to my meal. I was present and I slowed down. I'm not overeating anymore.'"
In David's experience, a person's problem with overeating or binge eating can disappear within days when they get into right relationship with food and life, which means being present to it. Being present and mindful can actually affect your physiology in a very direct and profound way.
So if you typically reserve five minutes for breakfast, make that 15 or 20 minutes. If you're taking 10 minutes for lunch, take 30, 40, or better yet, as much as an hour or an hour and a half, which is common practice in many European countries.
Approaching Food from a Place of Inspiration Rather than Fear
Many people also suffer from what David calls a "high fact diet," meaning they have amassed a great deal of nutritional information, but they don't have the expertise to determine fact from fiction, and thus they get inundated with minutia and overwhelmed by contradictions. "From that place, they can easily go into breakdown. They can easily go into 'Oh, screw it. I don't know what to do,'" he says.
Others eat very healthy foods, but are motivated to do so not because of the health benefits they get, but because they fear they'll end up diseased or dead if they don't. You might think that the end result would be the same, regardless of the motivation driving their food choices, but doing anything from a place of fear can set you up for failure.
"Start to notice... 'What are the thoughts that are serving you and what are the thoughts that aren't serving you?' Living in a constant state of 'I'm no good, I'm not eating the right diet, I know I'm supposed to eat paleo but I didn't do it perfectly so now I have to punish myself,' [will cause] people to quit a great nutritional program because they made one little mix up!
I've helped so many people who were following a healthy diet out of fear. Follow a healthy diet out of inspiration. What do you want to do when you're healthy? Who do you want to be when you're really healthy, when you have all this energy, and when you have the perfect weight?"
The strategy David recommends here is to turn eating into a meditative act; to slow down, and become aware — of your food, and of how your body responds to the food.
"It becomes a meditation of 'What am I thinking about when I eat? Am I present? Am I tasting the food? What does this food taste like? Am I full? Do I need to eat more?' Then it becomes a meditation after the meal. I ask people to check in 20 or 30 minutes later. 'How's your body feeling now? Are you noticing anything? Are your sinuses clogged?' They might say, 'Yeah, I'm noticing I have a little head congestion.' Does that connect to what I ate then in terms of how I'm feeling right now?' It's all about awareness. It's all about questioning."
Why Intermittent Fasting Might Not Work for Some People
Most people who seek to lose weight are insulin resistant, and in over 35 years of experience in clinical medicine, I've not discovered a more effective intervention than intermittent fasting, where you skip either breakfast or dinner, thereby restricting your eating to a narrower window of time each day. Restricting your calories to a six to eight hour window is a powerful intervention that will jumpstart your metabolic systems to start burning fat for fuel.
David agrees, but notes that many people who skip meals from a fear-based place with the intention to cut calories often still fail to lose weight.
"I've seen hundreds of these clients," he says, adding that, "there is a huge subset of people who have been taught that weight loss is calories in and calories out, period. From that understanding, they are trying to limit their number of calories. Oftentimes that is done from a place of fear and anxiety, i.e. 'stress.'
And one of the factors that creates weight loss resistance is the constant state of stress that we live under. Because if you're not losing weight on a weight loss strategy where you're undereating for years, that creates stress and upset. To me, that low-level and that chronically elevated insulin and cortisol impacts the body and the sympathetic nervous system."
In essence, what's happening in such a situation is that even though skipping meals should improve your ability to lose weight, the fear and stress overrides the process by upregulating your sympathetic nervous system. Also, from a stand point of bio-circadian nutrition, some people find it easier to lose weight when they're eating the bulk of their calories in the first half of the day as opposed to the latter part, so maybe you'd do better eating breakfast and skipping dinner (or vice versa).
Are You on a Sumo Diet?
Dr. Lee Know's book "Life - The Epic Story of Our Mitochondria," really brought home the importance of meal timing for me. Most people eat their biggest meal at night, which could be a massive mistake because your mitochondria — the powerhouses inside your cells — are responsible for "burning" the fuel your body consumes and converting into usable energy.
When you add fuel close before bedtime — a time when you actually need the least amount of energy — you end up generating metabolic complications, caused by free radicals and an excess of electrons produced in the process.
In a nutshell, late-night eating tends to generate excess free radicals, which promotes DNA damage that contributes to chronic degenerative diseases and promotes accelerated aging. To avoid this, stop eating at least three hours before bedtime. David also notes that, according to the concept of bio-circadian nutrition, your ability to metabolize food is related to your body temperature.
Your body temperature is highest right around solar noon, and that's when your body is metabolically operating at peak efficiency, burning the most calories. Moreover, he says that:
"Historically, the one place I could find that this was being put to use was in the traditional sumo wrestler community. You ask yourself, 'How did all those Japanese guys get so big?' As it turns out, back in the 1400s and 1500s when they didn't have cookies and ice cream, they were eating more food than their average countrymen, and they would wake themselves up in the middle of the night and eat the bulk of their food when everybody else was sleeping.
The sumo community, the sumo wrestlers, discovered that if we want to gain massive amounts of weight, just eat it all in the middle of the night! So if you're eating the bulk of your calories late at night, you're on the sumo diet. This is a very simple piece of nutrition information, which is so crucial and so key."
Exercise, but Choose Something You Love
David often recommends yoga, especially to people who have been eating right and exercising yet still fail to lose weight. Part of the problem here, he says, again goes back to stress — in this case, engaging in exercise you hate, or feeling that exercise is a form of punishment for eating or punishment for being overweight. By doing something you can't stand, you enter into sympathetic nervous system dominance, which cancels out many of the benefits of exercise.
He noticed that simply by switching to a form of exercise they found enjoyable was enough to provoke a shift, allowing them to start losing weight.
"When you put people on exercise that they love, or movement that they love, something happens. They get happy. They get more in love with their body. They get more present. People who are weight loss-resistant will start to lose weight finally. So that's an observation. I believe that it has to do with, once again, the person's kind of metabolic posture, the state that their nervous system is in. If you're doing exercise you can't stand, you're probably going to be locked in sympathetic nervous system dominance," he says.
Minding Your Posture While Eating
David has also found that when it comes to addressing overeating, binge eating, emotional eating, and endless dieting, your posture can play a role. Are you sitting up straight when eating, or are you slouched over your plate? People who slouch while eating tend to eat more quickly, but it also affects how you relate to your food. David xplains:
"We have a different relationship with food when we're upright. First of all, there's more of a sense of dignity. There's a sense of authority. When I'm slouched, I'm more energetically collapsed. This posture has an emotional kind of texture to it and the texture tends to be one more of subservience, defeat, or I'm making myself small. [Sitting upright makes] people feel more empowered and more dignified about their own self, their own body, and their relationship with food.
Also, when sitting upright, it will make breathing easier. It will make the breath more full. The breathing pattern of relaxation is regular, rhythmic, and deeper. The breathing pattern of distress response is arrhythmic, shallow, and infrequent. If you're hunched over, you will breathe more as if you're in sympathetic nervous system dominance. You're going to be breathing shallower. When you're upright, when your chest is expanded, you can breathe more regular, rhythmic, and deep.
Just adopting the breathing pattern of parasympathetic nervous system dominance will put you in that place in less than two minutes easily, which will then put you in the optimum state of digestion and assimilation. It will put you in the optimum state of being aware of your own appetite. So, one simple shift in the body can be very profound.
Also, when we start to become more erect, what we're doing is we are changing our personality. We are really stepping into our own personal growth program where we're claiming a sense of empowerment. Yes, it is good, structurally. But it's good for who we are as human beings inside as well."
If You're Stuck, Go Back to the Basics
The more I study and the more I learn, the more I realize how simple it is. Health and weight loss are not nearly as complicated as we've been led to believe. It comes down to understanding and applying some very basic principles, because your body was actually designed to stay healthy. It wants to be healthy. It does not want to be diseased or to rely on medications. Once you give your body what it needs, it will go into self-repair mode and heal quite efficiently.
Besides a healthy diet and physical activity that you enjoy, the ability to self-reflect and grow may also play a more important role than most people suspect.
"There's a subset of people who, until they do work on their self, they don't get the body to shift where it naturally needs to go. What I'm saying is, in my observation, there's a connection, oftentimes, between personal growth and metabolic potential. I like to use the formula: personal power equals metabolic power. Meaning, as I become the person that I'm meant to be; as I do work on self; as I become better in my character, and as I look at what life is trying to teach me, how do I learn my lessons? How do I become a better person?
How do I fulfill my mission in the world? How do I deliver my gifts? As I do that, I've noticed that my body has the best chance to step into its metabolic potential. Do I need to eat all the right foods? Of course I do. But as I'm stepping into my personal potential, I naturally gravitate towards the information, the kinds of foods, or the kinds of practices that serve me. That, I think, is a missing piece in the conversation around weight, or even the conversation around health in general."