My friend Elizabeth told me that before I knew her she weighed 205 pounds, but that she was able to lose weight and keep it off by changing her eating habits. From my observations of people close to me who have weight problems and from what I’ve read, I understood how unusual this was. So I asked Elizabeth to share her story with us. Okay, fine, I admit it! I have an agenda. Because I know from our previous conversations that Elizabeth has a regular meditation practice as well as a regular yoga practice, and that she credits both with helping her stay focused on maintaining her healthy eating habits.
|Cake and Photo by Brad Gibson (yeah, he bakes, too)|
Here is what she says:
“Neuroscientists have discovered that when you ask the brain to meditate, it gets better not just at meditating, but at a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self awareness. People who meditate regularly aren’t just better at these things. Over time, their brains become finely tuned willpower machines. Regular meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, as well as regions of the brain that support self-awareness."
And the good news is that it doesn’t take a lifetime of meditation to change the brain. Here’s another quote from The Willpower Instinct:
"One study found that just three hours of meditation practice led to improved attention and self control. The new meditators had increased neural connections between regions of the brain important for staying focused, ignoring distractions, and controlling impulses. Another study found that eight weeks of daily meditation practice led to increased self-awareness in everyday life, as well as increased gray matter in corresponding areas of the brain.
"It may seem incredible that incredible that our brains can reshape themselves so quickly, but meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, in much the same way that lifting weights increases blood flow to your muscles The brain appears to adapt to exercise in the same way that muscles do, getting both bigger and faster in order to get better at what you ask of it."
I don’t know about you, but I find these results fascinating. Because while self control is important for healthy eating, it’s also helpful for many other ways of fostering of healthy aging, whether it is something you need to stop doing, such as smoking, or something you need to start, like exercising.
But enough about science! Let’s hear what Elizabeth says about putting theory into practice:
Nina: Can you tell us something about why you needed to change your eating habits?
Elizabeth: I was overweight (205 lbs) and unhealthy at 32. I also had Crohn's disease. The change started when I moved to California in 1999. Eventually, I lost 50 lbs and have kept it off for 12 years.
Nina: What changes were you able to make that led to the weight loss and helped you maintain it?
Elizabeth: I started by making small, realistic changes that I knew would be easy to maintain. For dietary changes, I started with milk. I went from regular to 2%, then 1%. If I had fat-I tried to make it a healthy one such as avocado or olive oil. I also created a cookbook of my favorite recipes, and revamped them so they are still flavorful but healthy. I'm a genius at the 30-minute healthy dinner. My favorite is Cuban Black Bean soup. I try to always make time in my day for exercise. If I couldn't go to the gym, I would make a point of taking the stairs or walking on my lunch break. I also changed my perspective by viewing eating healthy and exercising as a way to do something positive for myself, not something to dread. I have a nice variety of yoga and exercise DVDs at home, which is also very convenient.
Nina: What is your meditation practice like and how do you think it helps you maintain healthy eating habits?
Elizabeth: I practice Transcendental Meditation, which is typically done twice daily, for 20 minutes. I meditate in the morning—I feel it's a great start to my day. It helps me to get the rest and focus that I need. It also manages stress and helps me to be checked in with what's going on in my life. I'm more likely to defer my unhealthy snacks once I've checked in with myself.
Nina: What you said about meditation helping you get focus is very interesting. Kelly McGonigal says, “Meditation is not about getting rid of your thoughts; it’s learning not to get so lost in them you forget what your goal is.” So meditation is supposed to help you stay “focused” on your goals.
I know that you also practice yoga asana. Has this helped with you maintain healthy eating habits? If so, how?
Elizabeth: Yoga has been wonderful in many ways. I am more relaxed, have less back pain, and I am more aware of how I'm feeling. For example, for most of the time, when I'm hungry, I'm actually dehydrated or have low potassium. I'll have a glass of water and a banana and I'm fine. Yoga helps me to be quiet through an uncomfortable situation (there are many of those in my practice!). I've learned to just pay attention to my breath and it usually moves me through a situation feeling very safe and grounded.
Nina: What you just said is so important! I think self-awareness is vital for healthy eating. You need to learn, as you said, when you’re just dehydrated rather than hungry, when you’re full and should stop eating, and which foods make feel good rather than just tasting good. And the relationship between stress management and healthy eating is so key that you’ve given me an idea for a future post. Thank you so much, Lizzy!