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Lorraine Vavul, 43, an Indianapolis wife and the mother of two young daughters, struggles to make the right choices about her family’s nutrition. Having overcome a weight problem, she’s especially interested in the subject and even maintains a file of dietary tips. Over the years, she’s compiled a welter of contradictory information about food. Even something as seemingly benign as an avocado disrupted her life when, 15 years ago, she learned that it was high in fat. Much to her disappointment, her beloved guacamole was suddenly taboo.
She recently welcomed avocados back into her home after discovering that they’re now considered wholesome, thanks to their heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, which can lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. But she still has trouble keeping track of what’s OK and what’s not. “I consider myself health conscious,” she says, “but I have no idea what’s worse: saturated or hydrogenated fats?”
Vavul’s bewilderment doesn’t end with fats. She’s still trying to distinguish good carbs from bad carbs and wheat from whole wheat. And now she’s hearing that carrots—carrots!—are coming in for criticism from diet programs because they score high on the glycemic index. An exhausted and baffled Vavul just wants some definitive answers. “Why can’t they resolve these issues once and for all?” she asks.
Like many other Americans, Vavul puts her faith in scientific experts for guidance. She’s willing to overhaul her kitchen in the name of health, certain that science will eventually show her a way out of the continual uncertainty over diet. She looks to the food industry, nutrition experts, and the government to dispel her confusion—yet these powerful forces only deepen it.
But there’s an often-overlooked force that could help Vavul out of her bewilderment: the teachings of yoga. The discipline’s philosophy teaches you to make your meals from plant-based foods that form the foundation of the food pyramid—foods over which there’s much less squabbling among nutrition experts. The physical practice deepens your awareness of your body, so you become more conscious of foods that bring a consistent sense of well-being—and those that make you feel bad after you eat them. Over time, practitioners often find themselves in a more comfortable and relaxed relationship with food. The practice could help Vavul resist mixed messages, learn to trust herself, and reclaim the pleasure of healthful eating.
Scientists are now turning up demonstrable evidence of yoga’s benefits in this area. A recent study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that middle-aged men and women who were overweight and practiced yoga at least once a week lost five pounds over a 10-year period. Their non-yogi counterparts gained eight pounds. Lead researcher Alan Kristal, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine, believes the weight loss had more to do with an increase in mindfulness than in calories burned. “You learn to feel when you’re full, and you don’t like the feeling of overeating,” he says. “You recognize anxiety and stress for what they are instead of trying to mask them with food.”
Bianca Raffety can attest to this phenomenon. The 36-year-old Anusara Yoga teacher in Seattle says she had poor eating habits before she started practicing yoga 14 years ago. “I went for quick fixes for my energy needs, which meant lots of processed carbs and prepared foods,” she says. “I ate too quickly. Burgers were common: lots of cheese, lots of bread.”
Now she’s much more aware of what and how she eats. She still has her comfort foods, but they’re higher quality. “I love a grilled cheese sandwich, but these days I use good bread and cheese.” Not only does Raffety choose healthful ingredients—her “good bread” is organic and whole grain—but she’s also learned to deal with her emotions without turning to food, and she credits her meditation practice and yoga community with helping her do that. “A yoga community fosters healthy responses to difficult situations, whether it’s mis-eating or anything else,” she says.
While yoga and meditation can help you navigate the choppy waters of the American food industry, success won’t happen overnight. But as you practice, you can build the discipline, patience, and compassion to overcome the many forces arrayed against you—no matter how formidable they seem.
The Forces Against You
We Americans, in our relentless pursuit of self-improvement, seem particularly vulnerable to the changing winds of nutritional expertise. As science writer Michael Pollan puts it, “We’re a notably unhealthy people obsessed by the idea of eating healthily.” It’s a paradox the food industry and media regularly exploit. “Americans take a scientific view of food, not a pleasure view,” says Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. “The food industry likes that because it frees them to reengineer processed foods to be low-fat or low-carb or high in omega-3s: whatever the wisdom du jour calls for.”
New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle, who wrote Food Politics, believes that food manufacturers—just like companies that sell cigarettes, pharmaceuticals, or any other commodity—routinely place profit over public health. “Food companies,” she says, “will make and market any product that sells, regardless of its nutritional value or its effect on health.” And they want to sell as much of it as possible, which may be one reason government officials often hesitate to encourage Americans to eat less of any foods—even those like meat and full-fat dairy products, which are clearly harmful when eaten in large quantities.
“The government will never promote a message of ‘Eat less,'” Pollan says. “It’s trying to protect the public health while at the same time advance the mission of agriculture—an irreconcilable contradiction.” Jane Hirschman, the coauthor of Overcoming Overeating and When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies, says, “The food industry would be half out of business if we ate only what our bodies required.”
Instead, the food industry has tailored its products to be an antidote to emotional frustrations. Dietitian and diabetes educator Robin Edelman notes food marketers have capitalized on our innate sweet tooth by adding sugars to nearly every type of prepared food we buy—from vegetable soups to bottled waters—making it easy to consume up to 20 teaspoons a day.
And the more sugar we eat, the more we want. When we eat a piece of cake, for instance, the sweet taste triggers the brain to produce opioids, chemical messengers that identify the taste as desirable. At the same time, according to Elisabetta Politi, nutrition manager at the Duke University Diet & Fitness Center, the sweetness triggers the brain to produce dopamine, another chemical messenger that works with memory to urge us to pursue this rewarding taste in the future.
Moreover, Pollan claims that the food industry has “fractionated the marketplace by creating food designed for men, children, athletes, menopausal women, people eating in cars—you name it.” (Be honest: If you saw something labeled ‘the perfect postyoga food,’ wouldn’t it get your attention?) “The food industry’s marketing machine is designed to subvert the family dinner,” Pollan says.
An additional subverting influence is the fast-food industry. According to Pollan, research shows that 19 percent of American meals consist of food eaten in cars. Fully one in three children in America eats fast food daily. Despite all the research showing it to be nonnutritious, convenience and taste trump all.
As a final insult, the media—women’s magazines, diet books, TV—conspire to make us feel insecure and unattractive, even as they purport to help us slim down. “We’re regularly bombarded by images of perfect bodies,” says Radhika Parameswaran, who teaches and does research on gender and media images at Indiana University. The result, she says, is that women are constantly comparing themselves to an impossible ideal.
That may explain why the U.S. weight-loss market was worth $46.3 billion last year, according to Marketdata, a market research firm that tracks the weight-loss industry. But Americans remain chunkier than ever, with a 75 percent increase in adult obesity since 1991.
Clearly, we suffer from a dysfunctional attitude toward food. The ferocious marketing of every new diet makes us question every bite. Bananas, once considered nature’s perfect food, are banned—along with all other fruit—from phase 1 of the South Beach Diet because its fructose spikes blood sugar levels. Bread, for centuries considered the staff of life, is now labeled too high in carbs. Fifteen years ago, a fat-free diet was the grail. More recently, dieters have been tucking into spreads of bacon, eggs, and beef. It’s no wonder people like Vavul feel whipsawed when it comes to food.
The Way to Freedom
In the face of all this, how much help can yoga really offer? Plenty, as it turns out. Just ask Wade Wingler, a 34-year-old computer specialist in Indiana who has lost 100 pounds since starting yoga two years ago. “My success has been a series of small changes that have added up, but yoga is at the center of it,” he says. “If I’m tempted to backslide in my eating, yoga helps me straighten up.”
His yoga practice, he says, has turned him into a much more mindful eater. Gone are the days of emotional or thoughtless eating; he’s become attuned to his body’s hunger signals. When he heeds them, he chooses food that’s healthful and satisfying. And even though he still eats fast food, he’s found ways to make it healthier and lower in calories. “I eat Wendy’s chili or McDonald’s side salad with grilled chicken. You have to ask them for this, but they’ll do it.”
Wingler has learned to moderate his intake and be less judgmental about food, which is key to changing eating habits, according to Michelle Stacey, the author of Consumed: Why Americans Love, Hate, and Fear Food. Her prescription for healthier eating is something she calls enlightened hedonism: eating satisfying food in smaller portions, without demonizing any food or food group. Her approach dispenses with the calculation of guilt, sacrifice, and indulgence so many of us fall prey to, silencing the voice that says, “I skipped breakfast, so I deserve this ice cream.”
Other yogis say the practice has transformed their eating patterns completely. “I’m not attracted to lousy food anymore,” says Anusara teacher Raffety. “Yoga has helped me realize how much junky food impairs my ability to think, to move.” For Lynn Ginsburg, a 10-year yoga veteran and the author of What Are You Hungry For?, the practice fine-tuned her palate and made her much pickier about her food. Junk food simply isn’t appealing anymore.
With a more sensitive palate, you don’t have to eat as much, especially since the gustatory pleasure of food is most intense in the first few bites. After that, diminishing returns set in. That’s why three bites of dessert can often be completely satisfying. Of course, with the enormous portions served at restaurants, you may be tempted to eat everything on your plate. Until portion sizes are cut, however, you have to rely on your instincts to tell you when you are full.
The kinder you are to yourself, the easier it will be, says Lisa Holtby, the author of Healing Yoga for People Living with Cancer. “Yoga calls us to practice compassion toward ourselves and others,” she says, “so when I overeat, I’ve learned to say, ‘What’s up with the eating?’ rather than beat myself up about it.” Raffety credits that forgiving attitude for helping her change poor eating habits. “Instead of pushing away bad foods, I move toward something that feels better, instead of making it about denial,” she says.
Carré Otis, a model, TV producer, and yoga instructor in Marin County, California, who was anorexic for years, knows all too well the dangers of denial. “I was unsustainably thin,” she says. Otis says her approach to food used to be based on how it would make her look, not on her health or well-being. “Yoga was a way for me to get into my body and learn to live in it,” she says. “It was like finding my way back home.” Her practice helped her see that size is irrelevant. As a result, she’s comfortable relaxing the disciplined regimen of no processed foods that she once followed. “How can we expect the world to be full of lovingkindness when we can’t even do it for ourselves?”
Lovingkindness is what Americans so desperately need. We won’t be healthier about food until we learn to love it more, not less—with, as Stacey says, “a relaxed, unashamed emotion.” And we may have to redefine the concept of “eating well.” The phrase, says Stacey, is now “often used to convey the idea of a diet scientifically programmed to prevent disease, balanced to the last ounce with the nutrients the latest studies tout, and almost religiously outlawing certain forbidden foods.”
Food as Comfort
But if you decide that no food is off limits, you can adopt a more relaxed and social approach toward eating. You’re likely to find yourself enjoying the journey instead of focusing on the destination, just as yoga teaches, says Timothy McCall, author of Yoga as Medicine. “Rather than saying, ‘I’m going to lose 20 pounds by spring,’ say, ‘I’m going to become more mindful of my eating.'”
As you do this, the joys of eating will reveal themselves. Sharon Gannon, the co-owner and codirector of Jivamukti Yoga Centers in New York City, finds eating a magical experience. “You take one substance into your body that then becomes your body,” she says. Gannon tries to imbue her food “with my intention to bring more happiness into the world.”
Although he’s not a yogi, PBS chef and author Jacques Pepin has a yogic approach to food. He considers it a connection between people, a celebration of life, and bemoans the “sea of suffering” he sees about it in the United States. “People have a guilt complex if they eat anything that tastes good,” he says. “They think something bad is going to happen to them.”
That bad thing might be disease or weight gain or ill health—the bugaboos that fuel the diet industry, nutrition fads, and our own cravings for definitive answers. Here again, yoga can help by reminding us that there are simply no such things as immutable answers. That may be disheartening to those who are confident that “the experts” will at last settle upon the “right answers” and clear up all the nutritional contradictions that confound us. Alas, no. That’s just not the way science works.
Scientists propose a hypothesis and test it. When their findings, often still preliminary, are reported in the media, they’re frequently interpreted as having the gleam of scientific certainty.
But, says Walter Willett, a nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health and the author of Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, “Contradictions are the normal path of scientific progress—a recommendation based on a good guess is tested and toppled by one based on good science. [That path] doesn’t fit with the media’s need to tell compelling but simple stories.” The rhythm of research, he says, “is more like a cha-cha—two steps forward and one step back—than a straight-ahead march.”
This search for answers may mask a deeper longing for a sense of purpose. We’ve become so engrossed in dodging illness that we’ve forgotten, as Pepin says, “that the point of living is to enjoy.”
Your practice can help restore that focus. It can remind you to fixate less on your diet and more on fulfilling your potential to be creatively engaged with the world, working in service to some cause greater than yourself.
Yoga represents one path toward enlightenment, wherein we give up our need for certainty and acknowledge the essential mystery of our lives. The reward is large: a chance to live in harmony with our food, including those pesky avocados that have plagued Lorraine Vavul. “I’m learning to take a deep breath,” she says. “The trick is to be healthy without being neurotic. Bit by bit, I’m getting there.”
Ingrid Cummings, producer-host of the radio show Rubicon Salon, lives in Zionsville, Indiana.