Nina and I have recently been talking about yoga’s potential benefit on developing healthy eating habits. Healthy eating habits are vitally important because, after all, the modern adage that you are what you eat seems more and more true as time goes on. What you eat can make you feel bad and can make you sick, as exemplified by such conditions as gluten and dairy sensitivities. It may even lead to diseases such as diabetes and heart disease that can shorten your life span.
Sometimes we hear folks claim that it is our relative modern inactivity that is to blame for the trend towards more and more obesity in this country and in the developed world. Often called the Hunter-Gatherer myth, it goes something like this: modern health problems like diabetes and heart disease are a result of our modern way of life being radically different from the hunter-gatherer environments in which our bodies evolved. Intrigued by such claims, Herman Pontzer, an assistant professor of anthropology at Hunter College, and his colleagues, set out to see if they could shed some light on this question (see Hunter-Gatherer Energetics and Human Obesity). They wondered if hunter-gatherer societies, due to their more active lifestyles, burned more calories in the course of their day than their developed counterparts in the big city. That could account for the lower rates of obesity and heart disease and the like. They turned to the Hazda people of eastern Africa, one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies on the planet. They measured the daily energy expenditure among the Hadza people of Tanzania to see if these people, whose daily life is so similar to that of our distant ancestors, expend more energy than we do in a given day. And guess what? They don’t. In fact, it is about the same amount as the modern couch potato. Even though they did not look at other side of the formula, the daily calorie intake of the Hadza, they came up with the following conclusion:
“All of this means that if we want to end obesity, we need to focus on our diet and reduce the number of calories we eat, particularly the sugars our primate brains have evolved to love. We’re getting fat because we eat too much, not because we’re sedentary. Physical activity is very important for maintaining physical and mental health, but we aren’t going to Jazzercise our way out of the obesity epidemic.”
If we shift focus onto the original question that I am interested in, how can yoga help my student’s develop healthy eating habits, from this study and lots of other evidence out there to support Mr. Ponzer’s assertion, I want yoga to influence how much we are eating. And since more physical activity does not appear to be the key factor here (meaning more asana or more vigorous asana is not necessarily the answer) I return, once again, to the benefit of practicing the quality of mindfulness that is so central to most styles yoga practices that include more than just asana. So much eating of high calorie, low nutritional value food happens via a mindless habit. Our yoga practice can begin to bring into clearer view the food choices and quantities of food we are taking in. It requires some specific focuses and goals, such as noticing the difference between actual hunger versus emotionally stimulated eating habits.
|Ripening Grapes by Nina Zolotow|