A few thoughts on dieting


Dieting is a nightmare for some and a constant struggle for others except those few who are naturally slim with a normal body weight. There are numerous weight-loss programs, books, CDs and TV shows by experts and yet the battle of the bulge continues with most people losing the battle rather than their weight.

I would like to share a few points with readers about dieting and losing weight. There are many factors that contribute to maintaining weight in the human body and the most important is our food intake. A person who is thin will put on weight by eating more, especially fatty foods, which help him to gain weight fast.

Conversely a person can lose weight if he reduces the amount he eats, especially the amount of fatty foods. Hunger in the human body is controlled by two centers in the brain, namely the “hunger center” and the “satiety center.” The former is stimulated by low blood sugar and the latter by high blood sugar. Over and above the stimuli from these two centers, which is a natural way to respond to hunger, there are many other stimuli that contribute to our eating, or rather “overeating” habits.

Social factors: These play a very important role in our food habits. Although eating at fixed times and intervals and maintaining a fixed dietary routine is good for the body, for social reasons, we tend to eat meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner whether we are hungry or not. Apart from this, at teatime we have snacks and other tidbits. At these times, we tend to eat something or the other, even though we may not feel hungry.

Advertisements: There are many advertisements to which we are exposed daily on the TV, Internet, press, hoardings, billboards, etc. They advertise food directly or indirectly as in advertising a holiday package that includes good food.

Accumulating wealth and aggrandizing ourselves: Nowadays, we tend to judge our social position and that of others by the amount of wealth we have. With an increase in wealth we tend to accumulate belongings, such as a house, car, furniture, jewelry, accessories, etc. This accumulation is due to a strong drive that originates from our instinct to survive, and when our subconscious mind is not able to differentiate between money, materials and food, this leads to overeating and the accumulation of body fat.

At the subconscious level, our mind sees the accumulation of material goods as a survival tool (the more the better) even though the conscious mind knows fully well that overeating and putting on weight is harmful to our health.

Mind over heart: While our feelings about hunger should dictate whether we should eat or not, it is instead our mind that dictates in these matters. The mind decides what to eat, where to eat, what is fashionable and what is not, what tickles the palate and what does not; what is exotic and what is “run of the mill,” etc. Many stimuli affect our mind including peer pressure and our childhood experiences, especially if we have faced poverty or a severe shortage of food as a child, which drives us to eat more and more, in spite of our knowledge about the health hazards involved in doing so.

The attractive display of food items in shops, hotels and restaurants make us eat even when we are quite full. Every time we pass such a shop or a hotel we yearn to eat the displayed food. Do we ever feel the same when we pass a pharmacy or another type of shop?

Genetic drive of hunger: Hunger is the strongest of all instincts in animals and it has helped them survive for millions of years. Today the same hunger drive exists but due to the change in our environment and the adoption of a sedentary lifestyle in the last 200 to 300 years, the hunger drive does not match our present lifestyle and as a result, obesity has become a problem for many people. We should be aware that the hunger drive which is compelling us to eat is the one that originated millions of years ago, which is present in our genes urging us to eat according to conditions prevailing then and not those which exist today.

Quality of food: One hundred years ago, most of our food was natural and consisted of more fiber than nutritive substance. With the advancement of technology and science, today’s food is much more refined and processed and hence, it is very rich in nutrition although it may be imbalanced and lacking in trace elements and vitamins. It is very easy to put on weight with even a spoonful of processed food because it contains so much fat and carbohydrates. With the development of genetic engineering, we can now grow the food of our choice and breed the animals of our choice and due to mass production a lot of manipulative techniques have seeped into the food industry namely injecting animals with steroids, antibiotics and other growth promoting substances which upon their consumption promote fat accumulation in humans.

Attractiveness of food: It has been proved in animals and humans that we automatically pick out those foods to eat which are rich in elements that we lack. The reason is that the body has evolved and adapted itself over thousands of years to like those things which it needs and because sugar is required for a quick supply of energy and fat for the storage of energy, we have developed a taste for sugar and fat and, therefore, they appear attractive to us and we long for them.

This was fine 100 years ago, but now even though life has become less physically demanding, our tastes have persisted and will do so for quite some time.

Overloading the body: As per nature’s plan a living creature feels hungry when his blood sugar falls due to the depletion of reserves and he does not feel hungry when his body has a normal blood sugar level. When we eat following our basic biologic desires, it is like filling a car with petrol much beyond the capacity of the petrol tank. This is the situation of an obese person with fat reserves much beyond his/her needs.

Dieting programs: Most dieting programs are good but implementing them is difficult because it has to fit into a person’s lifestyle. For example, if a person is following a diet program of salads and fruits, he cannot serve the same to his guests for fear of being scorned. The same applies to his guests when they host a dinner for him and the cycle continues.

The most important thing is to change our mindset about eating so that we are not trying to cut down our mistakenly so-called “normal intake” and avoiding attractive and tasty foods. What we are doing is preventing the intake of hitherto unnecessary and harmful foods that were wreaking havoc with our bodies due to our bad habits. We are not trying to lose weight but reversing that unnecessary weight gain with body fat that is harmful to us in the form of heart attacks and strokes.

Lifestyle: One hundred years ago even in the cities of developing countries and some developed countries, life was physically very demanding. Most small businesses were conducted by men moving on foot with heavy loads and most people in small cities and towns walked 10 to 20 km a day as a part of their daily routine because vehicles were not easy to come by.

Even in cities, electric fans or water pumps were the prized possessions of a chosen few. During the last 50 years, our lifestyle has changed drastically, making most jobs sedentary. Today even in industries which are labor intensive, such as construction or the cleaning industry, mechanization has taken over leaving workers to only sit and manage their work with the help of machines.

So if we wish to follow the right kind of diet, we should listen to nutritionists and follow their advice, but the most important thing is to change our mindset about our food intake. We must not regard the present day “overeating” as normal, and we must realize that we are stuffing ourselves with poisonous materials and start referring to our decreased intake as normal rather than regarding it as cutting down on our so-called “normal diet,” which is bombarding our sedentary bodies with literally tons of deadly matter, mistakenly referred to as “our food”.

Shabbir Thingna,