Dr Martinez proposes, based on credible research evidence, that longevity is learned, and the causes of health are inherited. He has studied healthy centenarians (100 years or older) worldwide and found that only 20 to 25% can be attributed to genetics – the rest is related to how they live and the cultural beliefs they share.
In my work with healthy centenarians (one hundred years or older) worldwide I did not find one case of morbid obesity – not because they do not eat heartily, but because, for them, food is a ritual of love rather than a routine of distraction. Some are moderately overweight without deleterious health effects because they understand you should only eat when you are authentically hungry, and never as a fear pacifier. Fortunately, since genetics only accounts for 25% of their longevity, healthy centenarian consciousness can be learned at any age – including mindful eating.
I also learned from centenarians how to detect the difference between routine and ritual. For them, routine is a pattern of behaviour to maintain social status quo – bathing, shopping, shaving, dressing, and so on. A ritual is action that identifies us with the cultural rites we learned with kindness, and associate with fond memories: hot tea before bed, a walk by the ocean, meals with family, celebrating special occasions, private self-caring time, pilgrimage to revered places, and so on. Sometimes, however, meals with family could be where you culturally learn to overeat because you are told to ‘clean your plate’ or not refuse second helpings. Some cultures consider it disrespectful to not eat all you’re served.
I argue, based on my clinical research and 20 years of neuropsychology practice, that obesity is not an illness. Diets are not sustainable. Many of the multibillion-dollar industries of weight management clinics, diet foods, and diet programs are implicitly based on the false premise that obesity is either an illness or a conduct disorder that can be resolved from the outside with strategies to lose weight. Predatory obesity marketing creates helplessness to sell solutions that have little sustainability.
Obesity is maintained by a mindset that serves as distractions from our existential hungerto confirm our self-worth. These distractions with food often shift to other excessive behaviours (smoking, gambling, video games) when success in the battle for obesity is defined by weight loss. In other words, the correct objective is to change the distractions rather than lose weight. Overeating is the symptom – what you’re avoiding is the cause.
The biocognitive (mind-body) method that resolves obesity, rather than change behaviour that shifts distractions, is based on learning how to love food, rather than to need food.We only abuse what we need, and as we learn to fill the void of self-worthiness, the love we gain will be projected to the food that we will no longer need to abuse.
Changing your approach to healthy eating requires practising patience, rather than being a patient; seeking coauthors of success, rather than marketing predators; loving food, rather than needing food; and replacing the distractions to avoid anxiety, with opportunities to accept your worthiness. However, the change that I propose is more than shifting from self-defeating thoughts to self-caring thoughts. Lasting change requires action that gives your brain evidence to support your new path. Since distractions to avoid the anxiety of loneliness, boredom, sadness, self-doubt and fear are mistaken for signals of hunger, food becomes the most important pursuit of the day. I should caution, however, that the vacuum created by no longer using food as a substitute, must be filled with what is truly lacking – feeding worthiness rather than false hunger.
When you recognise the true signals of hunger, you can begin to love food because it is no longer a mask for self-defeat. If you require professional help, seek humble teachers, rather than arrogant ‘specialists’.
Some practical tools to start your healthy love affair with food:
1. Any time you feel a need to eat, decide if the signal is coming from inside or outside. Body sensations, thoughts, and emotions are some of the internal signals. Seeing or hearing commercials, conversations about food and weight are some of the external signals.
2. Did you have an internal or external signal? Look for patterns.
3. Before assuming the signal is hunger, determine if it’s a distraction. If it is, identify how it feels in your body and breathe deeply from the stomach to defuse the strength of the signal. Then respond to the false signal with the appropriate solution: if it’s anxiety, take a few minutes to relax; if boredom, reconnect with your creativity; if fear, identify the culprit and take action, and so on.
4. If you’re not successful when you first try, celebrate that you are approximating success, and wait for the next distraction as if you were preparing to catch a thief.
5. Focus on the distractions rather than on weight loss. The weight loss will be indirect rather than planned.
6. Any time you successfully identify and correct a distraction, celebrate your self-caring action. The celebration could be as simple as a smile or going for a contemplative walk. The celebration could include adding a healthy ritual to your life.
7. Anytime you identify an authentic hunger signal, enjoy what you will eat, slowly and mindfully. You will notice when you pay attention to what you’re eating, you will eat less junk food and less quantity. When this happens you have started your healthy love affair with food.
8. Do not diet. Diet drinks and diet foods increase your appetite, can cause inflammation, and leave you with a false sense of accomplishment. Instead, learn to eat healthy, delicious food. Be creative – learn how to cook.
9. Practise healthy rituals to replace unhealthy routines.
10. Celebrate who you are independent of your weight. You are much more than the extra weight you carry to distract you from celebrating your excellence.
Dr. Mario Martinez is a US clinical neuropsychologist who specialises in how cultural beliefs affect health and longevity. He is the author of the bestselling book The MindBody Code: How to Change the Beliefs that Limit Your Health, Longevity, and Success that teaches his theory and practice of biocognitive science to the general public.
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