By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Do you remember when you were a kid and had to share a piece of pie or cake with a brother or sister? You each looked carefully to the cutting of the sweet to make sure you were not short changed. In a world which in the past was short of food, getting a fair share of it, or more, became instinctive. Whoever ate more was more likely to survive the next famine. Today, in wealthy societies, we have the opposite situation. We have a superabundance of food which has brought us an epidemic of obesity. You will live a longer, peppier, and healthier life with less food: less food means more life; light eating is magical indeed.
Biologists have known for many decades that animals have longer and healthier life spans when the calories they consume are restricted. Recently, we have found some evidence from genetics to explain how this happens. A period of light eating activates (triggers) a gene, SIRT1, which performs the magic when scientists deprive laboratory animals from eating all the food they normally eat from what is laid out for them. The procedure is called calorie restriction (CR) or calorie deprivation (CD) in biology. I call it calorie control (CC), light eating for you and me and our families.
You may ask, what about nutrition? In the experiments, biologists supply the full nutritional needs of the animals. But they found out that they can still reduce calories by 30%. Initially the animals lose weight, but after a time, weight loss stops, and the animals remain lean, vigorous, and very healthy, to a very advanced age. Mice, and all other species of animals to which the procedure is applied, maintain a normal weight when allowed to eat as much as they want, as opposed to humans who often overeat compulsively, getting fat. Once well fed, animals tend to other needs, such as reproduction.
Reproduction takes precedence over longevity when the food supply is plentiful. When food is in short supply, that’s when the SIRT1 gets to work: animals do better when they live longer to get past the scarcity to the next plenty for their offspring to eat. Then again, the SIRT1 gene is de-activated during times of plenty.
In the case of mice or rats with diabetes induced by experimenters, the disease is reversed with caloric restriction. The gene for diabetes is de-activated, after SIRT1 has been activated.
Incidentally, resveratrol, a polyphenol in red grapes and other plants, brings some of the benefits to health of SIRT1 activation. Plants produce this phytoalexin to counter infections from bacteria and fungi. Associated with the French paradox of health, resveratrol fights cancer, viruses, inflammation, and extends life, if taken in large quantities. A small company in Massachusetts, Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, is working to synthesize a compound stronger by far than resveratrol to bring us these benefits without calorie restriction. This medicine is in the early stages of development and may not pan out. In the meantime, we have the option of light eating.
What can we make of this magic of light eating in our lives as humans? We don’t know that we can extend our lives with SIRT1 activation, because experiments with humans are in the initial stages. A pioneer in CR, Dr. Ray L. Walford of UCLA, applied the procedure to himself with the objective of living to 120, but he did not live much beyond a normal human life span, dying two months short of 80. We have, however, much evidence that CR promotes healthier, longer, and more vigorous lives in us humans–provided we get the nutrients we need for growth, tissue repair, and energy.
Specifically, if you maintain a normal weight with 2,000 calories a day, using light eating you cut the calories down to 1,400. You will lose weight and fat for a while. Normal weight according to the charts is probably not the healthiest. Normal is average, and the average weight in the U.S. is too high. Check your body fat percentage: that should be about 15% if you are a man or about 17% if you are a woman. If you continue to lose fat getting much below 15% or 17%, increase your calories to maintain the right body fat percentage for you.
Mind, I am not advising here a strict diet to drop 20 or 60 pounds, look and feel great for a while, then resume your customary eating, regaining the weight just as quickly. The longevity gene is activated to render its health benefits to you after you have restricted calories for a long time. The gene will quickly get de-activated with a little overeating. To benefit fully from the magic of light eating, you commit to it for the balance of your life, every day. To do this, you look at food, not as a source of pleasure so much, but as a source of healthful nutrients. It has been said: “Eat to live, don’t live to eat.” I say, “Get your nutrients first, please your palate second.” Yes, you want to enjoy thoroughly what you choose to eat for health. Thus you avoid feelings of deprivation which lead to eating fattening foods. When you enjoy delicious food leisurely, you digest it better too.
But how do you get enough nutrition from 1,400 calories a day? Ah, there’s the rub: you must eat foods high in nutrition and low in calories. Pack your 1,400 calories with good stuff only. Don’t eat refined grain flours in pasta, breads, or other products; eliminate sugary snacks, fats such as butter, shortening, nuts, avocados, white rice and potatoes, or just have an insignificant amount of such foods for taste. On the positive side, after maturity humans require very little in nutrients. Protein is very important, but 3-4 ounces of protein a day from all sources is sufficient for tissue repair. You need some good fat, unsaturated or mono-saturated with omega-3s and omega-6s, but only two or three tablespoons of fat a day. So far you have used up about 600 calories. The rest can be complex carbohydrates from vegetables and fruits, giving you fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals with antioxidants. You can also take non-caloric supplements for any other nutrients your doctor recommends.
You may object: “But I would be very hungry with 1,400 calories only.” I say to you, it’s okay. Get good and hungry for your next meal; you will enjoy it more. Your best chance of a great meal next time is to limit your present meal. Hunger will enhance your smell and taste. Choose to eat the most exquisite foods in small amounts. You can afford these foods since you will eat so little. Relish every precious morsel of delicious food, eating slowly. Lay your fork or spoon down for a minute between bites and chew well until each savory morsel flows down your throat. We are not wolves to be bolting down our food. Most people don’t pay enough attention to their food. Concentrate, meditate, with full awareness on what you are eating; try not to think about anything except your food. Certainly don’t watch television, or read while eating. Don’t talk until after you have swallowed; that’s also polite. Music can also be distracting, although you may listen to fine music to relax before the meal or afterwards. When you are no longer hungry, stop eating and begin digesting your small meal. I repeat: this is the way to prepare for the best enjoyment of your next meal, by having fully digested what you ate before, by getting quite hungry again.
When hungry we tend to eat faster; get used to slowing down instead, allowing twenty minutes to elapse until your blood sugar has moved up and hunger subsides. Have you noticed how quickly people eat in our busy society? Fast food is not only served fast to us; we tend to eat it fast also. Put a platter of food on the table with several people to share. Notice how quickly it disappears. That’s instinctive in us. We want our share before someone else takes it. Let others serve themselves and take a little of what’s left. You will not starve, I assure you.
Before you eat something, estimate the calories on your plate and get a subtotal for the day. You have a budget of 1,400 calories, which you must not exceed. Does that seem hard to do? At first estimating calories is a daunting task, yes, but you will get used to a quick estimate in each portion of food with constant practice. Initially, a food scale, recipe cups, and calorie reference book will help. I recommend The Calorie King Fat and Carbohydrate Counter. If you are having difficulty keeping track of calories, eat prepared meals until you get used to portion sizes of the right foods. Eating off an 8-inch plate with a small fork or spoon will also help.
To limit calories each day, try meal replacement for dinner with a protein-juice-psyllium drink or a commercial product; if you are dining out replace your lunch with a protein drink.
If you find you get too hungry between meals on light eating, and are tempted to gobble up something like a small candy bar (240 calories) or a doughnut (350 calories), then snack on something low in calories and high in fiber. A snack on a carrot, cucumber, celery, jicama, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, or other raw vegetable will serve you well. A protein drink with psyllium fiber or oat bran also works wonders in suppressing excessive hunger. Four or five nuts, if you can limit yourself to that many will cut down between-meal hunger too. Eventually you will get used to light meals. As my sister likes to say, your stomach gets smaller. Or, your eye gets smaller than your stomach.
People in wealthy nations have big stomachs, eating far too much, overindulging in their appetite for a huge variety of high-calorie foods, especially animal products. Most of the food goes to waste, not even turning into fertilizer like the Chinese “night soil.” Our bodies are constantly burdened with digesting too much, making us sluggish and sleepy and we constantly slosh down caffeine drinks to stay awake at work or play. You will be far more alert and energetic on light eating, without stimulants.
With light eating, you will experience the magic of weight loss without diets, pills, or liposuction. To lose and maintain the right weight, keep in mind that about three quarters of the calories we take in are burned up just to maintain body functions; exercise uses the balance of the calories that we put to good use. (Walking all day just drinking water will burn one pound of body fat.) The rest of your food is excreted or stashed into fat tissues for the next famine.
If you don’t expect a famine next winter, but want to get rid of excess fat, light eating is the answer for you–with the aid of some daily exercise. Don’t expect too much from exercise, because you need to burn about 3,500 calories to get rid of one pound of body fat. Walking uses about 300 calories an hour. Wrestling, running, or vigorous sex is more effective at 600 calories an hour–50 calories in 5 minutes. But how many of us have the time or stamina to exercise for hours every day? Of course, you can bulk up lifting weights for several hours a day; bulging muscles will burn more calories while you are exercising, or at rest, even asleep. Can you spare the time and motivation for such exertions?
Alternately, you may want to try fasting one day each week. Fasting works magic in many ways as part of a light eating habit. In addition to fat loss, fasting promotes the elimination of toxins throughout your body and gives your digestive system some rest. Don’t fast then gorge; that’s worse than not fasting at all. It’s as bad as skipping meals, especially breakfast or lunch, which some people practice. Gorging then fasting is bad too—similar to gorging then throwing up. I know many people who fast for good health with no ill effects. I usually fast on Sunday, breaking the fast with psyllium, protein power, and juice blended in spring water whenever I get hungry or thirsty. I don’t work on Sunday, taking time to meditate and relax, exercising lightly with yoga. On Monday, I take care to get back to light eating again, not overindulging in food because I fasted.
On light eating, you will find you are less hungry between meals if you eat highly nutritious foods: sprouts, mushrooms, egg whites, chicken breast, fish, and fresh low-starch vegetables, low-calorie high-fiber spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, mustard greens, collard greens, beet greens–are all great for light eating, delicious with some lemon juice, olive oil, a little sea salt. Steaming or quick poaching preserves the colors, flavors, and nutrients of vegetables; it’s my favorite cooking method, if I cook my vegetables at all.
Raw foods are good for you, organic and thoroughly cleaned, but skins on. Eat organic fruits and vegetables with skins, cores, and seeds, if they are very fresh. The best way to get them really fresh is off a tree or vine, ripened to perfection. For such you need a garden; otherwise, go to a farmers market, or select the best, freshest stuff you can spot at the supermarket, usually buried underneath all the stale things, as my mother taught me.
Shopping for food brings me to the matter of savings. You are going to save a bucket of money at the grocery store when you are on light eating. Vegetables, grains, and legumes cost far less as a rule than meats and processed foods, especially the small quantities you will be buying. With light eating, you will discover most restaurants serve awfully bad stuff for you and you will eat at home, saving even more money. If money is not a problem for you, think of the food saved for the poor that you will not be putting in your body as ugly, unhealthy fat.
The poor may not be a concern for you, but animals and other living things may be. Light eating implies consumption of fewer animal products, which are high in calories compared to vegetables. Vegetables are living things too; some people believe plants have feelings too, hurting when we cut them down. In our current state of food production we need to cut things down in order to survive, but at least let’s do as little damage as possible with our light eating of leaves, seeds, and fruits.
You may also want to grow your own sprouts for freshness, good quality, and additional savings. I have found sprouts in stores to be of poor quality, often stale, so I grow my own. Fresh sprouts add much to the magic of light eating. They are packed with proteins, vitamins, and minerals, and are low in calories, because fat and carbohydrate content goes down with sprouting. Eat two parts grain sprouts to one part bean sprouts to get complete proteins. You can easily grow sprouts in jars from unprocessed seeds. Rinse seeds daily and drain well. Cover the jar opening with cloth or tissue, so your sprouts are able to breathe. When the seeds have sprouted, put them in your refrigerator, but rinse and drain daily to maintain freshness for up to a week.
With fresh sprouts and other living foods, your body will grow into a lean, dynamic machine very soon. You will be amazed at the energy you will be able to generate. You will love floating on your feet like walking on the moon, never huffing or puffing climbing stairs, gliding up with ease. You will enjoy your curves or angles; so will those that look at you: friends, relatives, and strangers, complimenting you and congratulating you. And what will you have to pay for all this? You will pay less money than before your light eating, enjoying fine dining, exercising only a little self discipline, and rejecting gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins.