As the food industry relentlessly markets every fad diet and product, Americans are forgetting how to eat healthily and happily. Yoga can help you make better choices about what you eat—and skip the guilt.
By Ingrid Cummings (Originally posted here in Yoga Journal)
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.