The key with any long-term healthy lifestyle is to research, experiment, and figure out what works for you. Some vegans find they thrive on a raw diet, while macrobiotic vegans feel best when they eat mostly cooked foods and whole grains. My diet is a cross between macrobiotic and raw – I eat lots of cooked foods and a gluten-free whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, but I also drink green juice and kombucha every day. I realized that this was the best combination for me after trying both diets and culling insights based on how I felt.
Everyone’s body is different and we all have unique taste preferences. Still, when it comes to more general guidelines for discovering our optimal diet, we all have more in common than we think. Below are some of principles that I’ve found to be most helpful when it comes to maintaining my ideal weight.
Listen to your body
Something conventional diet books will never teach you is to listen to your body. For me, listening to my body has made all the difference in the world in terms of feeling great physically and mentally. A good way to listen into your body is to close your eyes, take a deep breath and tune into the various sensations in your body. These sensations carry with them a wealth of information. Some questions to ask yourself are:
Am I thirsty? Most of us are chronically dehydrated, which makes it very difficult to listen to our bodies. Thus, we may wind up eating when we’re actually thirsty, and not hungry. A good habit to practice is drinking a big glass of water when you wake up in the morning. Then, continually ask yourself how thirsty you are throughout the day, and hydrate as needed.
How tired am I? Sleep deficit can prevent us from thinking clearly, and it has also been linked to overeating. Therefore, if we’re tired it’s important that we get enough rest. We all need 6-9 hours of sleep, and experts say we generally do best on at least 8. Practice good sleep hygiene by turning off electronics a few hours before bed, and sleeping in a cool room.
How has what I last ate affected how I feel? Notice whether your last meal left you feeling energized, or tired and weighed down. Most people find that they feel lighter after eating a vegan meal, as opposed to eating a meal with meat and dairy. But even on a vegan diet, various foods will make us feel differently. For instance, I find a meal that’s heavy in processed foods can leave me feeing sick and somewhat depressed, whereas a glass of green juice or kombucha is totally revitalizing. Part of the reason why I don’t eat gluten anymore is because I’ve noticed that I feel bloated afterwards, and it feels like I’m digesting cardboard – whereas when I consume gluten-free grains, I barely feel them digesting at all.
Sometimes all we need is awareness in order to make a shift. Once we’re aware of how different foods are affecting how we feel, we’re much more likely to embrace the foods that make us feel good, and eliminate the foods that don’t.
Am I hungry? If so, what does my body feel like eating? Listening to your body and honoring what it seems to want to eat is called intuitive eating. Our bodies have finely-tuned measuring systems that ensure we will get all of the nutrients we need if we just listen to it. For instance, if I feel like I need some protein, I’ll eat a meal that’s rich in nuts or beans; if my body is craving some carbs, I’ll have a gluten-free pasta dish; if my body wants some healthy fats, I’ll have something with coconut oil or avocado in it. If I force my body to eat what I think it “should” eat, this will usually backfire and cause me to feel tired and gain weight. All that being said, intuitive eating is only effective when you’ve weaned yourself off of addictive foods such as animal products and sugar.
If you’re not hungry, don’t eat. Ayurveda (an ancient system of living originating in India) teaches us that when we sit down to eat a meal, we should be be at an 8, in terms of a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being completely full and 8 being ravenous. If you’re not hungry, distract yourself or have some water or tea. While eating a meal, pay attention to how full you’re becoming and stop when you’re at an 8, in terms of a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being ravenous, and 10 being completely full. Remember that there’s always another meal coming, so there’s no need to hoard.
The more your mind and body are synched up, the easier it will be for your body to get exactly what it needs – no more, no less.
Stop counting calories
During my years of yo-yo dieting before I became vegan, I counted calories to make sure that I consumed as few calories per day as possible. What I didn’t realize is that not all calories are created equal. In the long run, low fat diets don’t work because our bodies need healthy fats to function optimally. Not only do healthy fats nourish our cells and organs, but certain fats like coconut oil actually boost our metabolism and help us burn more calories. At the time, I wasn’t getting the nutrients I needed in the form of protein and healthy fats and I was constantly exhausted and worn out. Because I wouldn’t trust my body, it couldn’t trust me.
Since I stopped counting calories, I’ve come to understand that our bodies are the ultimate calorie counter. If we listen to it, it will tell us what it needs and will do the complicated math 100% more efficiently than we ever could.
Kick your scale to the curb
Up until I stopped weighing myself many years ago, I would let the scale dictate how good I felt about myself. If I was at my ideal weight, which back then was bordering on too skinny, I was acceptable; if I was five pounds heavier, I was fat and unacceptable. Because being at my ideal weight required eating next to nothing, this meant that most of the time I thought of myself as fat and unacceptable. Looking back I can see how dysfunctional my logic was back then and I wish I had just been able to feel good about myself regardless of the number on the scale. But at the time I was caught up in the spell of my scale, and lacked the insight that it’s mainly confidence, and not how much we weigh that makes us attractive.
I finally stopped weighing myself a few months after I became vegan. Being vegan had fundamentally changed my relationship to my body and food from one of fear to one of love, and I no longer felt that weighing myself was necessary. I intuitively knew that getting rid of my scale would be good for me, and that it would free me from the guilt and shame I had around my weight. Still, my rational mind had a deeply ingrained fear that if I surrendered “control” of the number I weighed, it would get out of hand and I would gain 10 or more pounds that would be painful to lose. But it was just the opposite that happened – when I surrendered control of my weight and stopped being fearful of it, I was able to start listening to my body and intuitively sensing what it needed to eat and when.
Since then, I’ve held the belief that scales are a confined and limited way of approaching our weight. I think the reason we rely on numbers and measurement is because it gives us a superficial sense of control. But if the weather says it’s going to 76 degrees, that still doesn’t give us a clear idea of how warm it might be when we step outside. Wind, humidity, and dew point can make it feel 10 degrees warmer or colder. Meanwhile, the temperature is in flux all the time and although it may be 76 degrees today, it could be 60 tomorrow. As someone who weighed myself almost every day for five years, my sense is that we can weigh differently throughout the month depending on what we ate, water retention, and hormonal shifts. In this regard, I think that the number on the scale can be misleading and arbitrary in a literal way. But the worst thing about scales, in my opinion, is how we define ourselves based on that number.
Although I am against scales, I do believe in using my clothes-ometer – which is to say, judging how much weight I’ve gained or lost by how my clothes fit me. I’ve found my clothes-ometer to be much more reliable than a scale, and it also gives me more general and less definitive feedback about how my weight is. If my jeans are tight, I’m initially tempted to ignore it and think “it must have shrunk in the wash.” But then I usually catch myself and remember that if I’m honest, this means I’ve gained weight. Whereas I used to freak out whenever I gained weight, I now just neutrally observe it and decide I’m going to cut out more sugar, juice more, and step up my exercise regime. And then before I know it, my clothes fit the way they used to.
Try an elimination diet or cleanse
The best way to wean yourself off of any food addictions that you may have such as sugar, gluten, and dairy – all of which can be highly addictive – is to try an elimination diet where you go without one or more of these things. The diet can last anywhere from a few days to the rest of your life / indefinitely, but keep in mind that will take you at least three or four days to stop craving whatever your “problem” food is and to start recalibrating your body. Once you’ve stopped feeding your addictions to these foods for a week or so, you can assess how those foods were affecting you and whether or not you want to go back to eating them.
Here are some reasons why I’d recommend taking a break from sugar, gluten, and dairy.
Sugar – Sugar has been compared to cocaine, because the brain reacts to it in a similar way. I know from experience how crazy addictions to sugar can get, and how capricious it can make one’s energy levels. If you think you may consume too much sugar, I highly recommend doing a sugar cleanse, where you avoid fruit and sugar for two weeks (low glycemic sweeteners like coconut sugar are okay). What you’ll find afterwards is that regular sugar tastes gross and way too sugary. You’ll be able to discern the difference between fruits and sweets that are too sacchariney sweet and those are on the lower end of the glycemic index. These kinds of sugars won’t cause your blood sugar to soar, and later crash.
Gluten – Here’s another parallel between every day food and hard drugs: gluten clings to the same opiate receptors in the brain as heroine. Yep, heroine. Addictiveness aside, gluten can also cause inflammation, indigestion, bloating, fatigue, brain fog, and more serious symptoms, depending on how sensitive you are to it. The good news is that if you do find out that you have a gluten-sensitivity, you can still enjoy whole grains in the form of quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, and other ancient grains.
Dairy – The principal protein in dairy, casein, releases casomorphins in the body when digested and like gluten, attaches to opiate receptors in the brain. Casomorphins serve a purpose for growing calves, as it allows them to associate positive emotions with drinking their mother’s milk. However, most of us are not growing, nor are we cows – and given that dairy is rich in saturated fat and cholesterol, in addition to harmful proteins like IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1 and casein, both of which have been linked to cancer), it therefore follows that dairy is not doing us any favors.
Don’t think about food too much
Sometimes we focus on food too much because we forget that it’s not the only source of pleasure in life. What I’ve found to be helpful is thinking of activities other than eating that I love, and doing them more frequently. For instance, some small things that make me happy are going to spin class, reading, walking in nature, and listening to music.
If food is still the highlight of your day, you might seek insight into why that is. Perhaps you’re unhappy at work or in your relationship, and your preoccupation with food is just a smokescreen for dealing with those issues. If you’re eating as a way of distracting yourself from the issues in your life, try to deal with the root issue – whether it be through therapy, journaling, or just being with your feelings. Emotional issues are usually why we overeat in the first place, and unless we deal with them, no diet will ever be effective.
You can make not thinking about food easier for ourselves by limiting the amount of time you’re in the kitchen. Hanging out in the kitchen is great for when we’re cooking, but beyond that it can be a trap. When shopping, bring a shopping list and don’t stray from it. Make not eating out problem foods, such as bread and ice cream, easier by simply not buying them.
In the end, food is meant to be fuel. Eating is really only appropriate when we’re genuinely hungry; its purpose its to nourish our bodies and give them the energy we need. Lavishing too much attention on food wastes time and energy that could be focused elsewhere.
Finally, here are some books that I’ve found personally helpful or think might be helpful for those who would like to have a better relationship to food and their bodies.
Fit to Live by Pamela Peeke, MD
Breaking the Food Seduction by Neil Barnard, MD
Eat to Live by Joel Furhman, MD
Clean by Alejandro Junger, MD
The Quantum Wellness Cleanse by Kathy Freston
Constant Craving by Doreen Virtue, PhD