Many of us feel a sense of “lack,” or deprivation, in some area of our lives. Looking for comfort and escape, many of us turn to food. We then berate ourselves for being “bad” and go on punitive diets, in what often becomes a never-ending, vicious cycle. Diets fail not only because they “feed into” this deprivation cycle but also because they fixate on the food itself, with a litany of do’s and don’ts – making us obsessed with what goes into our mouths. Ironically, this stress leads us right back to food. Sustainable weight loss comes from nourishing ourselves – physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally, in a never-ending positive loop. By “feeding” our hunger on each of these levels, we shift our core relationship with food, coming into harmonious balance and gently shedding pounds, with less of the effort or struggle.
How Weight Struggles May Impact Your Life
If we struggle with our weight, we may experience anything along the spectrum of physical and emotional difficulties. We may suffer from diabetes, heart disease, or chronic pain that is triggered by carrying around more than our frame can handle. We may have difficulty walking, cycling, swimming, or engaging in other physical activity – further exacerbating the core problem of weight management by causing us to live a relatively sedentary life. We additionally may feel crippling discomfort in our body and, given our society’s biases about size, shame about how we look – leading to isolation, depression, and even self-hatred. All of these struggles in turn may set off a chain reaction of difficulties, adversely impacting our lives socially, professionally, financially, medically, and more.
What’s Going on in Our Bodies
At any given time, there are an untold number of chemical reactions taking place in our cells – among other things, digesting and assimilating nutrients, converting those nutrients into energy, building new proteins, maintaining their scaffolding and eliminating waste. The sum total of all these chemical reactions is known as “metabolism.” Here’s the Slow Medicine understanding of how our health can influence some aspects of our metabolism. When we are in balance on every level – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual – Slow Medicine tells us our metabolism is in peak form, in turn utilizing calories in the most efficient way possible. When we are out of balance, however, on any or all of these levels, our metabolism may be compromised.
Our bodies were originally adapted to survival in the wilderness, where we could have excess food one day and no food the next. In response, we developed the capacity to store excess calories as fat to be utilized during leaner periods when food was scarce. But this storage is influenced by a variety of factors, and insufficient food isn’t the only one. Stress can play a big role in how our body uses calories and when it decides to deposit fat. In some senses, our bodies have not quite caught up to the modern era, and can have trouble distinguishing between the metabolic imbalance caused by insufficient food and that caused by stress. So when we have been under the gun at work for a few weeks, or when we are routinely stuck in the traffic jam from hell during our morning and evening commutes, or when we are going through an extended and nasty divorce, the stress hormones in our body can trigger starvation mode and send out hunger signals that push us to reach for comfort foods – compelling us to inhale that pint of ice cream, medical advice and common sense be damned.
In other words, to our primal brain, spiritual, emotional, and mental hunger that leads to chronic stress can actually translate into physical hunger in some cases. As would be the case if we had not eaten for days, we feel desperate cravings for sugars (including carbs) and fats – pizza, cookies, ice cream, and other classic comfort foods. Not only are we driven to gorge on these foods, but typically we also find it very difficult to stop ourselves from doing so. Some of the higher functions of our brain that normally give us willpower and self-control start to shut off under chronic stress, in favor of the more emotional and automatic portions of our brain. The part of our brain that tells us that we do not really “need” an entire hot apple pie are “hijacked” by the primal functions of our brain. We are in survival mode.
The Conventional Approach
Conventional medicine often approaches weight loss by measuring weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar; by setting goals for bringing these numbers down; and by advising patients to eat a low-calorie, high-nutrition diet and to exercise regularly. This approach successfully alerts patients when a problem has manifested, and it educates patients about the importance of physical activity and nutrient-dense foods. It often fails, however, to recognize that the problem is more than just excess weight; it is metabolic imbalance. Conventional medicine can sometimes additionally fail to recognize that there are complex bio-psycho-social dynamics behind metabolic imbalance and that many patients need the tools to master those dynamics, in order to get their weight under control.
The Slow Medicine Approach
Slow Medicine can help to optimize metabolism, and therefore weight as a result, by recognizing and “feeding” the many forms of hunger. Using a comprehensive inventory, Slow Medicine helps to identify where patients feel a “lack” in their lives. We then begin trying to fill those voids in positive, constructive, and healthy ways, by activating the seven spokes of the Slow Medicine Wheel of Health:
- Our physical bodies (for example, playing tennis, practicing yoga).
- Our mental-emotional states (for example, reciting positive affirmations, practicing guided imagery).
- Our relationship to others (for example, going out with friends for dinner, playing games with the kids).
- Our relationship to the natural world (for example, going on a hike, watching birds in the backyard).
- Our community (for example, attending a neighborhood block party, joining a networking group).
- Our relationship to the Divine (for example, attending services at a local spiritual center, praying at home).
- Our life’s purpose (for example, teaching children, volunteering at a homeless shelter).
We even can activate multiple spokes simultaneously, and therefore amplify the impact of each, by practicing “healthy multitasking.” Instead of walking on a treadmill at the gym, for example, we can go for a walk (physical body) on the beach (relationship to the natural world) with a friend (relationship to others). As we feed our hearts, minds, and souls in these ways, we achieve balance in our lives, reducing sources of chronic stress and helping to normalize changes that stress has had on our metabolism. We then can focus on feeding our bodies, without confusing the hunger of our bodies with the hunger of our lives.
Even through the act of eating, we can utilize physical nourishment as an opportunity to feed ourselves on multiple levels, by activating any of the seven spokes of the Slow Medicine Wheel of Health. Here are some examples:
By buying our produce at a farmer’s market, we not only can bring home some of the freshest and most nutrient-dense food available (our physical body), but we also can develop relationships with the vendors, performers, and locals coming out to the market (our community), all the while supporting local and sustainable agriculture (our life’s purpose).
By choosing produce with a diverse array of colors, textures, smells, and tastes, we not only can satisfy our biochemical needs (our physical body), but also delight our senses (our mental-emotional state).
By getting creative in the kitchen, and by invoking a state of mindfulness in the presentation of our food – even in the creation of a simple dish like a fruit salad – we can unleash our inner artist (our mental-emotional state) and practice meditation (our relationship to the Divine).
By adding colorful flowers to the table (our relationship to nature), playing soothing music (our mental-emotional state), and offering a prayer of gratitude before eating (our relationship to the Divine), we can both enhance the experience of eating and reduce stress that may be altering our digestion and metabolism (our physical body).
When we prepare our food and/or when we eat it, we can invite those we love to join us (our relationship to others).
3 Steps to Get Started
To start on the Slow Medicine approach to healthy and sustainable weight management, take these three steps:
Feed Your Body Wholesome Food
Eat more colorful, seasonal produce – choosing an array of green, red, blue, orange, white, and yellow vegetables and fruits. Start by adding just one extra serving a day, be it a small plate of sautéed greens, a side of baked squash, or a cup of apples cooked with raw honey and cinnamon.
Feed Your Emotions
Release the negative and embrace the positive, by doing stream-of consciousness journaling – through which you can get out all your anger, resentment, and frustrations. Play with children or animals, so that you reconnect to the simple joy of being alive. Reach out to friends and community, new or old, and begin to cultivate loving and supportive relationships that take you to your happy place.
Feed Your Spirit
Activate your inner artist and express your soul, through dancing, painting, singing, or taking photographs. Get out into nature, however you are able – whether going for a walk in the woods, driving along the beach, or sitting in a local park. Join a meditation group, house of worship, or yoga class, to access the Divine within and all around you – connecting to something greater.
This content originally appeared on SlowMedicineDoctor.com.