Ugh, why don’t my pants fit?! I swear I’ve been doing all the right things! Exercising daily, downing salads, kale smoothies, and even rice cakes! Where did I go wrong?
Have you ever noticed that the harder you try to lose weight, the more weight you gain? Such a conundrum. If energy input is less than energy output, shouldn’t weight management be simple? Not so much. Maintaining a steady weight may seem like the puzzle of the century, but it doesn’t have to be a head-scratcher.
5000 years ago Ayurveda laid out the ground rules for healthy, happy and balanced living. Below are ten diet and lifestyle tips that can help get you back on track, and stay there, without counting calories or hopping onto the next fad diet.
My invitation is to read through these tips and select one that resonates with you. Try that tip on for a week, a few weeks, or a month. Once you feel as though that has become fully integrated into your life, then try on the next tip. As always, give yourself permission to be human, make mistakes, and move on.
- 3 meals a day, preferably warm, no snacking
Let’s be honest, we’re a snacking culture! Snacks at the gas station, the hardware store, even Office Depot! Allegedly we became a snacking society with the advent of the corner gym. Once working out became a part of our lifestyle, it was common for people to start eating breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, snack. Woah, let’s back that up a minute.
We went from eating the following:
We basically doubled our caloric intake. This, in and of itself, is problematic. The body is built to burn the food we ingest. During the 3-4 hour break in which we are not eating, it will start burning the fat reserves. The stored fat works as slow, steady burning energy. Energy that allows us to go about our day in a more predictable manner, rather than experiencing ups and downs due to blood sugar fluctuations. When we eat breakfast, and then an hour later eat a snack (healthy or not), the body opts to burn the newly added fuel vs tapping into the fat stores. I imagine the dialogue goes something like this:
Body: Well jeez, I was just about to start burning the fat stores, but you just ate that carrot. Welp, I guess I’ll burn that, saves me a lot of work.
If you are a habitual snacker, it may take some finesse to work toward three meals a day. Most find that the morning snack is the easiest to eliminate. Deprogramming the afternoon snack habit will most likely take longer. Play with the quantity of food you are eating at breakfast and figure out how much food you need to consume to get you to lunch without being hungry. Do the same for lunch to dinner.
Ayurveda recommends leaving 3-4 hour between meals. This is ideal so as to not interfere with the digestive process. Dr. John Douillard likens interrupting this process with snacks to botching a pot of rice.
Imagine you are cooking rice for you and your pal. The rice has been bubbling away on the stove for 3 minutes when your kiddo walks in ravenous. You think to yourself, “no problem, I’ll just throw in another handful of rice.” Uncooked rice joins the simmering pot of par-cooked rice and you continue to cook the rice for the original cook time. How do you think that rice will turn out? Some chewy, some perfect, some mushy. Probably not going to be winning a James Beard Award for that rice.
When we consume food the stomach gets to work by releasing hydrochloric acid to break down the nibbles and churns like a Whirlpool washing machine. Once the stomach has done its thing, it releases the chyme into the duodenum. If left unhindered, meaning no extra snacks added to the fold, then this is equivalent to cooking a 5 star pot of rice.
However, if that cupcake is too good to pass up (no judgement, if it’s from Magnolia’s, it’s a no-brainer) the stomach is put in a quandary. Keep churning the food to break down some of the newly added cupcake and risk overcooking the prior batch. Or release sooner to the duodenum and give the small intestine some improperly processed food to try and absorb nutrients from.
While this tip takes the most time to explain, I promise it’s #1 for a reason. 3 meals a day, no snacking, done. This has become hardwired into my brain, alleviating a lot of the stress and anxiety surrounding diets and weight management.
Now for those who love your cake, and want to eat it too, no problemo! I’m not saying your beloved snack foods are being taken off the table. Just group them with a meal. If you love eating sweets or chips, have them with your lunch.
- Eat your biggest meal at lunch
Studies have shown people that front load their calories have more success at keeping their weight in a steady range. That being said, it’s okay to skip breakfast if you’re not hungry in the morning.Those that have more kapha in their constitution may take a while to work up an appetite. That’s fine, favor fruit instead, don’t eat breakfast if you’re agni isn’t awake yet. Vatas, eat your oatmeal! Pitta, for the love of all things holy, please have food prior to your cup of joe.
10am-2pm is considered the pitta time of day. This is when the sun is at its peak, and being a microcosm of the macrocosm, our digestive fire is burning bright. It is ideal to eat your biggest meal at lunch because your agni is equipt to break it down. Be sure to eat a substantial meal so that you have enough energy to get to dinner sans snacks. Remember, if you have a sweet tooth, have your treat at lunch.
Dinner should be the lightest meal. Supper comes from the word supplemental meal. This can be tricky in our culture as we are a dinner heavy society. However, favor lighter fare such as soup and crackers, steamed veggies and grains. Remember that you are just going to lay down for 8 hours, so you don’t need a ton of energy.
If some nights you do eat later, don’t sweat it, simply notice how you feel the next day. Eating late bogs down digestion, which diverts the energy that is normally allocated for cell and tissue repair and other detoxifying processes performed by the liver and kidneys.
Ayurveda is the art of observation. Notice how you feel, make note, and adjust.
- Listen for the burp
The digestive fire is often likened to a small campfire. For those unfamiliar with the art of fire building, start with a base of kindling, add a spark, slowly start to add sticks, then bigger sticks, then logs. If you add too little fuel, what happens? Burns out. If you add too many logs what happens? Smothers and goes out because there is not enough wind to fuel the fire.
Ayurveda suggests we have a careful balance of food, water and air in our stomach. The pie gets split as follows:
- ⅓ Food
- ⅓ Water, liquids (can include soups, beverages, moist foods)
- ⅓ Air
The air piece is often lacking in the Standard American Diet, it’s easy to forget to leave space so that air can circulate, so the stomach has room to churn. When you are full the body will let you know it’s full with THE burp.
This burp is magical, and subtle. It shows up as a tiny trickle that works its way up the back of the throat. It’s often inaudible and it’s your body signaling that all the real estate is spoken for. If you leave the table now, you will feel light, refreshed and ready to move onto the next task.
Heed the burp, fork down, walk away. I like to think that I don’t want to deprive my future self of the remaining brownie, cookie, etc. Save it for another time if the burp has arrived. You will leave the table feeling satisfied and light vs bogged down- like after a Thanksgiving dinner.
- 80/20 , 60/40, 51/49 % Rule
This rule is a fan favorite. If you are toeing the line 80% of the time, allow for 20% of slack. That sounds too tough? How about 60% to 40%? No, 51/49%? As long as you are making healthy choices for more than 50% of the time, you are on the right track. Leave space to have fun, do not get so rigid and dogmatic about rules that you dry up and become a fun sucker. Have the cake, beer, chocolate, and Hippeas. Moderation, and enjoy the heck out of those treats, rather than eating on the run.
In his book Food Rules, Michael Pollan suggests the “S Rule”. This rule says no sweets, seconds, or snacking, unless it’s an “S” day (Saturday/Sunday). Implementing the S rule is basically like implementing a 70/30 protocol. Whether you prefer to let loose on the weekend, or have more flexibility throughout the week, keeping the 80/20, 60/40, 51/49 rule in mind will leave space for fun (and fun foods).
- Bitter to squash cravings
Ayurveda always looks to treat with opposites. If you are cold, you have a warm beverage. If your skin is dry, add moisturizer or oil. Sweet cravings can often be an indication of an imbalance of the 6 tastes. The six tastes are:
Ideally you are consuming a mix of all 6 tastes. Most meals will have a base of the first three tastes, spices and greens usually take care of the remaining 3 tastes. While you do not have to consume these tastes in equal proportions, if you are only consuming a few tastes, things get skewed.
To balance sweet cravings, treat with the opposite, and that’s bitter. Bitter can be found in black coffee, dandelion greens, kale, arugula, radicchio, broccoli rabe, IPAs, dark chocolate, or black tea. Coincidentally, these tastes as listed above, follow the stages of digestion and it is ideal to consume your food in the same order. Now, I’m not saying to start with cake, but perhaps the heavier grains, root vegetables, meats, and go from there. In many cultures meals end with something bitter. Rumor has it that in France bitter green salads are served last. It’s common in Italy to sip an espresso after a meal. Bitter ties up the meal nicely.
I discovered this hack on my own. I would leave the Kripalu buffet always feeling unsatisfied, not because the food was lacking, but because I still was craving something. I started consuming a square of super dark chocolate and noticed my cravings went away immediately. From there I experimented with Urban Moonshine’s bitters and found this worked even better. I carry the travel size spray bitters and use them whenever I feel “tounge-ry” rather than hungry.
- Sit when you eat
Take time to sit and enjoy your meal. Put down your phone, the newspaper and simply sit and be present with your food. Perhaps giving gratitude for all the hands that came together to get this food onto your plate.
When you are multitasking, or eating standing up, the attention goes away from the food and outward. Not only can this hinder the digestive process, but by scattering your energy you are not taking in the depth and flavors of your food. Love that food up and make eating a ritual.
- Wake up with the sun
Waking up with the sun can dramatically improve your energy levels. Vata dosha, composed of ether and air is said to rule from 2am-6am. If you wake up closer to 6am, you will feel the lighter, ethereal qualities of vata. Nature wants us to wake up with the sun, that’s when all the critters are up and at ‘em. In order to ensure more zip and enthusiasm for life, get up with the sun.
However, if you are in the habit of sleeping into the kapha time of day (6-10am) your day will be infused with a heavier, earthy energy. Sleeping into the kapha time of day may leave you looking puffy, snotty, and requiring a small crane and 4 cups of coffee to get you out of bed.
Skip the snooze button and you can skip the coffee.
- Exercise in the kapha time of day
While the kapha time of day may not be great for sleeping, it’s a boon for morning exercise. Move the body and lymph first thing so that the system does not get gummed up. This is the time of day when we are physically at our strongest. It has been scientifically proven that we are physically stronger during the 6-10am window. A study found that Russian weightlifters could lift more weight in this time slot.
Not only is the body physically built for exercise first thing, morning exercisers are more likely to stick to an exercise routine. My guess is the earthy quality of kapha makes them prone to routine, and if you exercise during the kapha time, this naturally becomes part of the daily rhythm.
Exercise moderates our digestive fire. A robust fire allows for substances to be properly broken down and assimilating, resulting in less ama or toxicity.
Do whatever exercise excites you. If you hate it, then you’re probably not going to stick with it. Dancing is a great way to lift the mood and get in some cardio, as Tal Ben Shahar says, “It’s hard to be somber while dancing.” Find an exercise guide with a similar constitution. Hate cardio? No problem, how about Pilates, weight lifting, kayaking, slow biking? If you tend to have more vata, you may need to burn off a little more energy before you can slow down. If you tend to struggle with depression, the Ayurvedic classical texts suggest walking east towards the rising sun every morning.
Regardless of the exercise type, get moving!
- VATA weight gain!!
The classical texts talk a lot about weight gain related to indulging in heavy foods and laying around. How many people can you think of that simply lounge around all day long? None, right? It’s not part of our culture. We are constantly on the go. Moving from task to task, barely taking time to eat, let alone breathe. When we do remember to eat, it’s to grab a salad and mindlessly eat it in front of our work computer. Stress abounds. Cortisol is released, we are constantly in fight or flight mode, rather than rest and digest.
Stress is not a bad thing, our reaction to stressful situations has a survival purpose. We are biologically programmed to handle stress. If we see a bear on a hike our body enters fight or flight, which sends blood to the extremities to prepare to haul ass out of there. Then we realize it’s not a bear, rather a fuzzy labradoodle galavanting with its family. Well guess what? The stress hormones are still running wild, telling the body we are in danger for hours and hours after the “bear” incident. These hormones are telling the brain that we are in danger and may not get another meal for a spell, thus hold onto any fat like our life depends on it. Eek! Holding, holding, holding.
Ayurvedically speaking, what happens if we continue to take in qualities that are dry (salads) light (rice cakes), mobile (commuting), pouding (spin class) then our vata increases and our nervous system is perpetually on high alert. Kapha, the earth and watery dosha acts as a big brother and declares that there is a state of emergency. All these drying activities, smoothies, and salads are causing the system to be sapped of its juice. Kapha plops right on top of vata to prevent the drying and creates a lubricating barrier. This can show up as those pesky 10-15 pounds that just won’t budge.
Until you drop the stress, the body will hold the weight. Once the state of emergency is over (meaning you are not in fight or flight mode 24/7), then kapha will relent and those pounds will slide off. Practice belly breathing, or alternate nostril breathing, to start to soothe the system.
- Love yourself- you’re perfect and a gift
As cheese ball as it sounds, take time to truly appreciate your body and repay its generosity. Perhaps a loving abhyanga to nourish the skin. A foot massage in gratitude for all the miles your feet have carried you. File your nails and think about how hard it would be to communicate without these digits. Your body is on your team. Once you realize that your body is not your enemy, rather your champion, things will start to shift in a positive manner.
If you’re sick of counting calories and stressing about your weight, I highly encourage you to integrate some of these tips into your life. As previously mentioned, begin with one and slowly layer on another. Change takes time, but being able to ditch the scale anxiety makes it 100% worth it.