A lot of our weight obsessions are socially generated. My dad was fat. He was pilloried for it, despite the fact that our doctor said he was the fittest farmer of his age that he knew— he lived past 90. As a boy, I learned that being overweight was shameful, and I decided I would never let myself get fat.
But obesity is also hugely dangerous to our physical health, and to be lighter is to feel noticeably healthier. As a nation, we are overweight.
And obesity is finally an issue, and a disease, of spirit. It is not simply a matter of calories, as anyone serious about weight loss soon discovers.
Obesity is a spiritual issue because it is an indicator that we have lost awareness of ourselves, and are being ruled by our environment. If it were just a matter of calories, weight loss would be easy.
In one sense, we have always been ruled by our environment. Body mass has aligned with the season of the year, and been affected by whether the year was one of feast, famine, or in between. We have evolved to live harmoniously with these cycles. But body mass also correlates with affluence, and during my lifetime, the west has become increasingly affluent, and more distant, from the natural cycles in which we evolved to live. We have created an artificial environment of consumption.
Our ecological crises are the sign that we are alienated from the biosphere of which we are a part. This is a spiritual issue: we know how to live well in the world, but cannot imagine a way to do that. It feels too costly, so we continue towards destruction. Our obesity epidemic is an indicator of this malaise at a personal level. We know how to eat well, but it feels too costly, and we continue to put on weight. Our affluent environment rules us.
This essay charts the story of my weight and, ultimately, my spirituality. Your story will be different, but I think the underlying issues are universal.
I will be making a distinction between psychological and spiritual in this essay. The distinction is this: psychology describes the forces and urges driving us. Spirituality is more about living harmoniously with them, and accepting that some of them are not for us to control.
There are some key physical factors influencing our weight, and each one has psychological and spiritual implications.
Factor One: Exercise
We are designed to be active. Our survival once depended upon it. Human bodies expect two or three hours of moderate to heavy exercise each day. But the western employee is expected to produce commodities to be sold, and at present the highest value, and therefore, the highest paying jobs, need little physical exercise. Offices where you need to get up and move around are deemed “inefficient!”
As we age and get more responsibilities, especially if we are any good at our job, it gets harder to get enough exercise. At a deep level, society does not reward physical fitness; it rewards the getting of money. In our world, unless we make profound changes to our lifestyle, it costs us money to make time to exercise, and to get exercise— gym fees. And the exercise we get is not the exercise of our ancestors.
I worked seven years in the city, which involved a 1.3km walk to the train every morning, and then a further 2km to work. So I was walking 6km a day, five days a week, at a brisk rate. My weight hovered around 100 to 105kg.
When I left that job I realised I could ride to work, so for the three days I needed to be in the city each week, I rode my bike. That was a 60km round trip each day, to which I would often add 5 -15km by taking the long way home. My weight went down to 94-95kg and refused to go any lower. (The Sour Taste of Sugar)
The dollars and the time involved in this experience are fascinating. I was getting to work in the same time, or less, as when I had walked and taken the train! And not much longer than it took with a car! It was costing me less than the $5.00 per trip for the train, and much less again than the cost of a car and parking. Around that time, I had costed the purchase of a small car for my business as a consultant. I found I would need to charge an extra twenty dollars an hour simply to own the thing; running costs would add more to this. But with a bike, I was getting 3 hours a day free gym!
I was healthier, happier, and easier to live with— although my wife was sick of cycling anecdotes. There are times of life when babies, health, and other issues rule out such exercise. But for many of us it would be the healthy, financially, and psychologically sensible way to go to work. Instead, we gripe about the cyclists on the road, often, I suspect, because we are deeply envious, but not quite able to get motivated. We get fat and hate it. Why?
I also found exercise has its limits.
In 2011 I took long service leave and rode across Australia for a month, averaging 115km per day. My weight dropped to 86 kilos, but went back up to 90+ in the months that followed.
It takes an enormous amount of exercise to shed weight. At the end of 2012 I was riding a minimum 180km a week, often more, and my weight did not budge. (Ibid)
As one of my friends says, “You can’t outrun calories.” And our body seems programmed to go back to the weight with which it was comfortable.
Factor Two: Sugar
In Dec 2012 [my doctor] pointed out that although I had what was once seen as a satisfactory blood sugar level, it was now understood to indicate a high probability of mature onset diabetes. It runs in my family, so it will most likely happen to me.
I was told I could probably affect how soon the diabetes begins, and how bad it becomes, by cutting sugar out of my diet now. This, I said, would be easy, as I never add sugar to anything. Too fast!
My muesli (no added sugar) was full of sugar, packed with dried fruits to make it sweet. That healthy yoghurt I had on my cereal: full of sugar. Orange juice—even the no added sugar stuff, he said—can still [legally have a certain level of] sugar added to keep the product tasting the same level of sweetness!
His basic message was this: if a food is processed, it will have sugar added. It may not be called sugar, but it will be there: dextrose, sucrose, maltose, corn syrup, sultanas, paw paw, real fruit syrup. And don't even mention Coke!
The doctor is correct. Look at your food labels. Look how carefully they divide up the sugars in the list so that sugar does not appear as the main ingredient.
I adopted the following rule of thumb [from his suggestions] :
- Non processed foods
- Apples and pears – fine
- Stone fruit – moderation
- Tropical fruit – little bags of liquid sugar – avoid… (Ibid)
I wrote a few months later:
My morning weight on Christmas Day was 93.6 kilos. [On March 19, it was 81.6 kilos.] The really bizarre thing is that because of a family crisis keeping me at home, I have only just been back on my bike in the last fortnight. I have had less exercise in the past 6 weeks than at any time in the last ten years, and I weigh less. (Ibid)
Almost all processed foods have added sugar. Food “science” seeks a sweet spot with just the right amount of fat, salt, and crunch, to make us want more. Food companies are not concerned with feeding us; they are about wanting us to buy more of their product.
We evolved without an off-switch for fructose; the sugar in fruit. Any kid learns this; the only off switch for grapes or apricots is diahorrea! You never stop feeling hungry next to an apricot tree!. This makes sense. We once needed to put on weight in the summer to help last out the winter so, no off-switch. Now Coles and Woolies have most fruits all year round! And fructose is added to food almost by default.
I’ve maintained the sugar free diet. I’ve re-discovered natural flavours, and discovered how sickly sweet so much other food is.
Factor Three: Calories
Even with less sugar, my weight constantly seeks to go back up. The fact of our world is that we have too much food too easily available. I have needed some firm rules: no seconds, no desert beyond one piece of fruit, and smaller servings. And… absolutely no food between meals, because
One recent study found that most of the calories people eat come through snacks between meals. But when you ask people, they deny it. They’re surprised to find out just how much they snack.
You can’t outrun calories. With my current approach to food, and riding 180 – 200km per week, I maintain 82-83 kilos; exactly 83kg this morning. But the weight always wants to come back. Something else is going on.
The real issue of our weight is spiritual. When we struggle to find meaning in the world, or be “at one” with the world, the struggle is expressed in all sorts of ways. So, too, the effects of trying to do more than is healthy. For some of us, the struggle shows in our weight. So dealing with weight by addressing diet and exercise is only ever a partial solution.
It gets worse. Not only can we not outrun calories, but
Let’s say you decide to cut back on calories. You eat less for a day. The result? It’s like picking up a stick and poking a tiger. Your hunger mood rises and for the next five days you’re eating bigger meals and more snacks, perhaps only vaguely realising it…. I’m not denying the physics here. If you take in fewer calories, you’ll lose weight. But if you explicitly try to reduce calories, you’re likely to do the exact opposite. Almost everyone who tries to diet goes through that battle of the bulge. Diets cause the psychological struggle that causes weight gain. Michael Graziano.
We assume we have to diet or exercise more. We may have realised just how difficult that is, given the nature of our society and the details I have sketched out above. What we don’t realise is that dieting causes the psychological reaction Graziano mentions. He goes on to say
… the neural circuits train up on our dietary habits. … The system learns, anticipates, and regulates. It operates in the background. We can consciously interfere with it, but not usually to good effect.
He dealt with this issue by an “approach … designed to speak to my unconscious hunger control mechanism, to encourage it to eat less.” He stopped trying to diet—read the article—and began what I would call the spiritual practice of living in synch with his psychology, although he refers to it only in psychological terms. Dieting is not natural, we have not evolved to do this. There has never been any evolutionary advantage to it, so naturally, it will have unpredictable psychological impacts.
There is more happening in weight loss than a simple psychological trick, although the psychology is clearly important. For me, weighing myself in the morning is a measure of spiritual health, not a measure of weight loss, and I wonder if in his long personal exploration of weight and hunger something, something similar was happening.
What happened for me was that my exercise accidently addressed spiritual issues— the struggle— in my life. I did not start cycling to lose weight! I was sick of trains. I hate city driving. Both things dis-eased me, as did the job where my weight was the highest. I went back to doing something I had loved.
When I had the big no-sugar weight loss, our household had taken on a 24/7 crisis where meaning and purpose were suddenly absolutely clear—we just had to help someone survive, and survive ourselves. Our employer gave us paid time-off to do it.
And I stopped being hungry.
I have known for decades that weight was not my problem. The problem was that I was insatiably hungry. Some of the hunger was addressed by the bike riding because that took me some way out of the rat race and back into a more meaningful life. In the 24/7 crisis, despite all stress and danger, I was in an artificially simple world where I was fulfilled, doing and being what I am meant to be. Being filled-full, I stopped being hungry, and the body did the rest.
When our part in that crisis was over, my weight began to creep up, and weight maintenance became an issue again. I was once again in a wider, less simple world, where meaning had to be found and consciously held.
This year, I took a 67 day cycle ride across Australia through some of our remotest regions. I ate like a pig—four meals a day, plus an unconscionable amount of nuts and chocolate. I lost 6 kilos of weight, and put them all back on in the first month back. Was this just a change in exercise, a result of only riding 60km on three days a week, instead of riding 100km a day?
I’m not sure that it was. When I got back, I couldn’t stop eating. I was also seriously depressed, and almost had to take sick leave. On the trip outback, my perceptions of meaning and purpose in life were deeply reinforced; when I got back, I felt hugely alienated from society I had to re-enter. As I (slowly) readjusted, the hunger decreased, and the weight gain has ceased. Part of that adjustment has been to re-affirm life decisions that are contrary to the consumerist norms of Australian society.
In other words, when the spiritual is in tune, the weight follows.
I see a lot of substance abuse in my work as a minister. I’ve come to understand that, very often, people are not sick because of substance abuse, but that the substance abuse is an attempt to deal with their sickness. We moralise about drugs, but in fact, most of us are into substance abuse. We can’t get started without our morning coffee. We keep going, when we are exhausted, by mainlining sugar. We turn off at night with alcohol.
For many of us, substance abuse is done with food; it messes with our appetites and our weight, and the drug companies—sorry, the food producers—are only too happy to supply us. We cope with life by abusing! Some of us, with comfortable homes and relatively trauma free lives, can be functioning alcoholics, never even drunk, while others of us have had such trauma that only blind drunk, or worse, can blot out the pain. Food, caffeine, grog, drugs, or some other thing, become a coping mechanism.
The good news in all of this is that many of us know there is a problem. We know we are not happy about life. The hard thing is doing something about it; everyone knows that, too. But the answer is not to be found in eating less, or drinking less; Graziano’s article makes that clear. The answer is to give up on what makes us ill to begin with.
At Christmas time we talk about love and family, and we make an effort at these things, smashing together the bits of our family which usually, and sensibly, avoid each other. But for the rest of the year we go back to the rat race: long commutes, long work hours, boring jobs, all because you have to make ends meet. What if we decided that we could live on less, live more simply, and do the things we really love?
I really love cycling. It’s about journeying, which is deep in my psychological makeup; I have to be journeying. So I’ve organised my life around it, and a couple of other things I love, even if only accidentally, at first. I’m healthier, happier, lighter, and better to be with, because I do what I love, instead of working like a dog to “keep up with the Joneses.” Or to fit someone else’s vision of what ministers are like. What’s more, I’m much more productive in the things that are important for life; I contribute to making society better, instead of helping a company get more money it doesn’t need. I’m better at it than I ever was. I’m not successful in the eyes of the world, and have a low income, but I find I have no hunger for most of the things which keep people financially stressed!
And I’m carrying a lot less weight in every sense of the word.
The hunger mood is hard to control, precisely because it operates outside of consciousness. This might be why obesity is such an intractable problem.
Spirituality brings things—and us—into consciousness. Deal with the issues of meaning and purpose—and what has injured us, and the uncontrollable things begin to run more as they should. That’s what good religion is about. It helps us live life in synch with what really is, instead of being a slave to consumerism and, therefore, to other people.
Andrew Prior (2016)
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