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Losing Weight by Gaining Life

As spring has finally come (despite snow this past week to remind us its not summer yet!), I notice many people experiencing low appetite. Often its just not exactly knowing what sounds good right now. A patient and I were discussing how it feels very seasonal; no longer the time of stored food (roasted root vegetables, stews and soups), but cold and fresh salads and fruit don't feel quite right either. This is a natural expression of the cycle of time; in a truly agrarian society, now is when grain storage is running out, but fresh vegetables have not quite sprouted yet. Hence you have a springtime fast. Spring is also the domain of the liver, so the perfect time to do what we can to support our body's beautiful filter! If you are wanting to cleanse, this is the time to do it. I always recommend doing this moderately (more on that here).

Often this is also the time that issues of weightloss come up. Culturally, this is a big topic around holidays. But seasonally, right now is when many feel a sluggishness from winter that can't quite be shaken. There is an extra desire to get back on those new year's resolutions, and often a frustration at how difficult it feels to shed extra pounds. It would seem like an easy equation; calories in, calories out. But if this were true, we wouldn't have such an epidemic of frustrated people who can't maintain their set-point.

Yes its true that we are more sedentary than ever, with easy, high calories at constant arm's-reach. But the picture runs slightly deeper and more complicated than this, and anyone who has ever wanted to fit into their clothes better (which is probably the majority) knows this to be true. In this article I'll touch on my observations about the roots of this topic, some basics to keep in mind, and some resources to look into if you're interested in learning more.

Regarding the depth and complexity of weightloss, there is too much to cover in just one blog piece. But I do think there is a common theme in our culture of overfed and undernourished. Then we focus on one part of the duality (overfed) while neglecting the other (undernourished). There are so many other examples of this cultural way of thinking. One is Germ Theory; we focused on the invaders and forgot the piece about the internal ecosystem. Another is in the history of GI research; Dennis Burkitt studied African cultures with robust GI health and brought us the importance of fiber, but we forgot the part about nourishing grass-fed animal fats and the enzymes and probiotics of fermented foods. Veganism has brought the importance of vegetables, the concern over consumption of factory-farmed animals, and the help of enzymes. But it neglects the importance of our inability to digest cellulose, the consumption of grains damaging our external and internal ecosystems, and how essential pre-digestion is to vitality (more on this in an upcoming article).

Similarly, the narrow focus only on the overfed part instead of the undernourished is leaving people wondering why they have introduced plenty of restriction, but their body is not responding. Of course keeping meal portions reasonable and getting a good amount of regular movement are essentials for a healthy body weight. But many are doing this and still not losing weight. Often this is a symptom of taking care of the overfed part but continuing to neglect the undernourished.

What do I mean by undernourished? There is the aspect of nourishment that comes through a nutrient-dense diet. This is essential for the healthy functioning of all of your systems, but also for signaling your body about satiation. Fat is what makes you feel full. Every wondered why the more sugar and carbs you eat, the more you want? Or why you can eat plates of salad but still not feel satisfied? That's because fat tells the body we've gotten what we need. So am I telling you to go out and eat donuts as a weightloss plan? Doubt that would work! But healthy fats from grass-fed animals, butter, ghee, coconut oil, and olive oil deliver nutrients and warmth to your body, and tell you that you've been satisfied. A diet without these will never be a diet that grounds and satiates the body. We are made of protein, fat provides energy, and carbohydrates are like fuel. You cannot live on fuel alone; you need just enough to burn, and the rest to build a body.

That said, I am not a proponent of "paleo" or really anything extreme. Though I think some diets work for some conditions for some amount of time always, the goal is to find what fills us up, brings us joy, and makes our body want to metabolize at a healthy rate. Which brings us to another aspect of being undernourished. Almost always, when we delve into issues of weight, we come to the crossroads of emotional and physical holding. Our parents and culture don't come equipped with tools for the healthy processing of complicated emotions and experience, so most of us don't naturally inherit these tools. If we don't somehow learn them on our own, our body bears the brunt. We might create a layer of protection around ourselves in more ways than one. Not to mention the epidemic of mothers who had mothers that were worried about their weight, which they couldn't control, so they try to control their daughters. To break this cycle, as adults we must learn to get off our own backs, and feed ourselves the love that our moms couldn't always give themselves or their daughters.

So what if your diet is nutrient-dense and your emotional baggage is sifted and unloaded, but there is still extra weight and perhaps a sense of undernourishment? The question then might be, in what way does your life need to be fed? After years of asking patients "what do you need today?," and as I learn from inspiring thinkers (such as Dr. Lissa Rankin) to ask "what do you need in order to heal?," I am now asking patients "what would you love to do?" Tears usually come, and answers are things like "dance more," "quit my job," "tell my husband what I really want," "let myself drink coffee," "stop being a sounding board for my mother." So although we think there is a simple prescription for healthy and happy that includes going to the gym and drinking smoothies, this is often not enough, and usually no replacement for a whole picture of nourishment.

If we look around at other cultures, we can see that this overfed/undernourished epidemic is very American. Yes we sit too much and have an overabundance of junk food. But there is also the issue of sensuality of experience, of connectedness. Two examples come to mind; one about the rich food in Europe, and the other about the effect of western television on Fiji Islanders.

While backpacking in Europe during college, I remember noticing the majority of people in France, Spain and Italy were fairly thin. At the same time, each of these cultures were enjoying cheese, chocolate, and wine. They also enjoy long, social mealtimes, naps, reasonable work hours, easy healthcare and education. Also much of the food supply is still different; no GMO's, more organic, more ancient grains and traditional preparation, basically a life of less mass-manufacturing. This is a life more nourished, and the body responds; when one is truly "fed" from all aspects, the body gets what it needs, and no longer needs to crave, or hold on to excess.

The Fiji example is a study I once heard about that showed the majority of 4th grade girls expressed eating-disordered behavior only a year after the introduction of western television. Prior to this, these islanders found a robust body to be a sign of fertility and abundance, and prided themselves on the image of a curvy woman as evidence of a successful society. The tyranny of impossible expectation is reaching our psyche before we have any idea. This ignites a deep assumption that we need to control the interactions of our body and environment in order to look right, to be "good." This inevitably backfires, because this wise organism responds to control by pulling the other direction, often resulting in "out of control."

How does this translate in practical terms? Simply; if starved in any way, the organism will find a way to get fed. If it can't get what it needs in one way, it will overcompensate in another. Also, metabolism needs movement; movement of the body, of emotion, the warmth of fat, the endorphins of joy. If we shut any of this down with the false sweetness of sugar, stimulation of media in place of the nourishment of connection, pushing ourselves through the boredom of the gym instead of exercising our heart through dance or breathing fresh air or looking at trees, this wise organism will know.

So what to do? Ask yourself how to get fed. In basic food terms, if this is more confusing than ever, come see me and I'll teach you about a nutrient-dense diet. You can also investigate the resources I list at the end of this article. If you have the food part down, ask yourself how else you might be undernourished? If you haven't heard your heart sing in a while and you know how to find its voice, then this is your medicine. And if you don't know how to make it sing, even better, you get to find out!

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject so please write to me with any questions or leave comments below.

In the meantime, here are some resources to support you on your journey toward a fully nourished life, and a body that responds accordingly:

Transformational Weightloss: http://www.foodsanity.com/online.php
On a nutrient-dense diet: http://www.westonaprice.org/
More about fat and calories: http://garytaubes.com/