A year ago, before I left the house to take my early morning walk, I would ingest strong, heartprotecting herbs: hawthorne berries, garlic, ginger, cayenne, red clover and motherwort. I did so because when walking only two miles on nearly flat terrain, my heart would begin to pound wildly in my chest. I weighed 215 pounds and for some reason considered myself healthy. Go figure.
The past twelve months have not been kind to many of my friends and acquaintances, as more than a few have passed over. I’m not talking 80 and 90 year olds either, but middle age – 50s and 60s – my age. The truth was staring me down: If I didn’t seriously address my lifestyle, I too would be heading for the slab much too early, and well before I had completed all the things I came here to do.
April of this year, I began a journey of transformation, and removed fifty pounds of fat off of my body’s internal organs, particularly my heart, by consistently and persistently eating less. One morning about six months later, I suddenly became aware that there was no longer any pounding in my chest when walking or running. In fact, I felt as though a thick blanket of fat around my heart had mysteriously dematerialized.
Everyone who has ever attempted to permanently lose weight knows that it’s not about the diet itself, but rather keeping it off afterwards. Reduced food consumption will certainly result in decreased body weight, but if the previous eating habits that created the oversized body in the first place are not addressed, the weight loss will not be permanent. The amount of fat lost will make little or no difference if afterwards a person goes back to eating the same way and in the same amounts that created the problem in the first place. I knew from the beginning I would also need to make significant changes in my life and create a new relationship with food. My body was returning to a more normal weight, but my new life was just beginning.
I recently came across a book written by Dr. David A. Kessler, the controversial former FDA commissioner who fought for tobacco regulation – and won. The End of Overeating, Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite addresses our subconscious neurological attraction to salt, sugar, and fat rich foods, knowledge that is used to create menus for the fast food and processed food industry. More importantly, he addresses the ways that people can train themselves to neurologically overwrite subconscious compulsion to find temporary gratification through those foods.
Unlike a lot of people suffering from obesity and/or gluttony, my issue was not fast food or heavily processed convenience groceries. In fact, my diet was and still is primarily home grown and organic. Many of the people that provide me with their happy free-range eggs, milk, and grass-fed beef are close friends. I have always been careful not to consume unregulated and unlabeled GMO (genetically modified) foods like corn and sugar so as to protect my kidneys. I have always eaten healthy foods. The problem was that I simply consumed too much. Worse, I loved getting lost within the comforting sensation of food by essentially going unconscious when I ate.
I used to make salads in large bowls filled to the brim with the most delectable of ingredients: fresh spinach, lettuces, root veggies, and fruits. Then I would top that off with slivers of braised steak, feta or blue and Parmesan cheeses, maybe some pine nuts, raisins or cranberries, or even nitrate-free bacon. I would then drench the entire bowl with premium olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Total calories? Somewhere around 5,000 – enough energy for a normal sized person for almost three days. I used to eat that way – all the time.
Getting real about change meant getting real about the fact that I had completely lost touch with any realistic idea about what an appropriate sized portion of food should be. I was completely resistant at first, but started counting calories and measuring portions, started paying attention and being present with my food when eating, and learned to stop eating before I felt full.
Scientific research studies show that when delicious foods rich with tasty salt, sugar, and fats are placed before us in abundance, we will eat more than we actually require for a single meal. These neurologically programmed signals are subconscious. They predate “three squares a day,” and are directly tied to that part of our brain originally designed to operate during our hunting and gathering days. When I allowed myself to cook and eat in an unconscious and automatic way, my brain would revert to that subconscious program. To change my life, I needed to change that program, and become conscious and intentional while enjoying much smaller meals.
Dr. Kessler suggests a simple yet elegant technique for helping the brain rewire out of the subconscious default programming of salt, sugar, and fats: When hungry, give your brain the picture of satisfying that hunger with fresh fruits or simple vegetables. Inwardly, show your brain a picture of a healthy sized salad or entrée. Overwrite the default programming with a picture of healthy foods in appropriate quantities.
I am learning that regaining control of my nutrition is not about denying or punishing myself, but befriending my body by sending my brain pictures of healthy foods, and loving those foods so that they will, in turn, love, care for, and nurture my body.
Dr. Kessler said it well: “We now must face the reality to fundamentally alter our eating behavior. The sooner we create and implement a framework… the sooner we will regain control over our minds and bodies. It is then, things begin to change.”
For me, choosing to change by deciding to forgo the luxury of unconscious eating in favor of allowing my body to become a healthier weight, is a spiritual choice supported by scientific evidence. I am choosing to grow up, to expand my awareness, and to overwrite past behavior with intentional and loving thoughts. That kindness, in turn, expands beyond my body and affects all my environment. And for the people in my life, that has become a wonderful thing.
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What are your suggestions for remaining conscious and meditative while eating meals?