Ayurveda Weighs In on the Obesity Epidemic

March 4, 2014    BY Shannon Sexton

I was paging through The New Yorker when a cartoon caught my eye. In my memory, it’s a stenciling of pedestrians ambling down a metropolitan street. They are almost spherical, like blimps about to lift into the air. A tubby boy and his mother are standing across the road, watching the herd of roly-poly people (whose clothes, incidentally, are so tight that their buttons are about to pop off). But one woman stands out in the crowd: a thin, leggy young lady striding along in high heels and a pencil skirt. 

The fat boy tugs on his mother’s pant leg, gesturing with wonder. “Look, Mom,” he blurts. “A skinny lady!” 

The cartoon is a twist on last year’s breaking news: for the first time in U.S. history, people who are not overweight are in the minority. Two-thirds of Americans are carrying around too much weight, and half of those are obese. In the last three decades, obesity rates have doubled, and the percentage of pudgy kids has tripled. Today, even our pets are packing on the pounds: 25 percent of cats and dogs are overweight.

Last year, medical authorities like the Surgeon General, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Heart Association released ominous warnings about the future of our country’s health, including the prediction that obesity might soon overtake smoking as the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States. Our nation’s weight problems are draining both our economy (racking up an annual $117 billion in medical bills) and our lives (killing 365,000 people a year). 

In an attempt to reverse this trend, overweight Americans who are sick of the consume-fewer-calories-and-exercise-more equation are darting in other directions, searching for greener (less fattening) pastures. They’re popping bogus “fat-trapping” pills full of shellfish skeletons (a.k.a. chitosan). They’re eating ungodly amounts of bacon on Atkins. They’re paying $30,000 to get their stomachs stapled. And in the field of genetics, the situation has become so bizarre that stem cell researchers at UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh predict that in five or ten years, you may be able to use the plethora of stem cells embedded in your midriff’s “spare tire” to help treat the medical complications caused by obesity. 

These developments are disturbing. How—and when—did we get so out of control? So far removed from nature? So complicated and high-tech and absurd? I’ve been following the media hype about our nation’s weight problems for more than a year, and I’ve contemplated the purported causes, the proposed solutions, the people and the industries nominated for blame. After a while, I began to wonder: what would Ayurveda say about our eating imbalances? 

In search of answers, I spoke to three of the most articulate, knowledgeable experts in the field. Robert Svoboda, David Frawley, and Vasant Lad are the trailblazers who, over the past few decades, have introduced Ayurveda to a wider audience around the world and have collectively written more than 15 books on the subject. These experts—scholars, teachers, and practitioners who are grounded in the ancient texts and in the lineage-based tradition of Ayurveda—reveal the real causes behind America’s weight problems and offer natural solutions (that don’t cost $30,000).  

Problem #1:  Material abundance often adds pounds. We’ve tried to compensate with erratic dieting, which slows down our metabolism and makes us even heavier. 

Thousands of years ago, Ayurveda classified obesity as a disease of affluence, because only the rich had the luxury of becoming fat. As Lad points out, “The fact that two-thirds of Americans are overweight shows that there is great prosperity in this country. This is a land of milk and honey.” But interestingly, one out of every four adults who live below the poverty level is obese. How could this happen? Is the old Ayurvedic principle outdated? Yes and no, say Lad and Svoboda. On one hand, bad-quality food is cheap and readily available, while high-quality food is expensive and harder to find. So poor people often get more bang for their buck in weight-producing junk food than in fresh whole foods, even though the former promotes weight gain and ill health.

On the other hand, says Svoboda, “Although there are a lot of poor people in this country, when you compare them to poor people in India, for example, it’s a little ridiculous to say that you’re poor because you can’t afford high-quality food. Granted, the food that is available to poor people in America is often undesirable, but still, the kind of poverty that we have here is much richer poverty than there is in other parts of the world.” 

“There’s too much food, there’s too much entertainment, there’s too much leisure, there’s too much of everything. As a result, people are not trained to evaluate for themselves what is the best way for them to live, and nobody teaches them….When you add all of these factors together it’s surprising that anyone in this country is thin.”

Svoboda thinks that America’s obesity problem is mostly “a problem of excess.” He says: “There’s too much food, there’s too much entertainment, there’s too much leisure, there’s too much of everything. As a result, people are not trained to evaluate for themselves what is the best way for them to live, and nobody teaches them….When you add all of these factors together it’s surprising that anyone in this country is thin.” 

Standard American behavior—overeating (especially junk food) and underexercising—makes you fat, Svoboda says. Crash dieting does, too. Ninety percent of dieters return to their original weight or even add pounds. That’s because, as he explains, “When dieters go back to their normal eating habits at the end of the diet, they burn off fewer calories and store more fat than they did previously. Their metabolic rates have dropped, and their bodies are now wary of starvation and want to store even more just in case such an episode is repeated. Crash dieting therefore increases the body’s fat ideal and makes you fatter.” Frawley says that in addition to suppressing your agni (digestive fire) and slowing down your metabolism, dieting also disturbs or increases the vata dosha and aggravates “nervous-type obesity,” which is very common in our culture. 

Solution

Your body has adapted to your eating patterns—even if some of them are unhealthy. “And it tends to hold onto its habits tenaciously,” explains Svoboda, “so you need to be patient about reeducating your body.” Ayurvedic texts recommend reducing the amount of the unhealthy foods you eat by fourths, he says, instead of shocking your body by going on a strict diet for a short period of time and then reverting back to your old ways because you can’t maintain the austerity. In the old days, overweight patients would slowly eliminate unhealthy foods over the course of seven days. As Svoboda explains, “On the first day, they would eat one-fourth less than normal, on the second and third days eat one-half less, and on the fourth to sixth days eat only one-fourth as much as they were accustomed to eating, so that by the seventh day they are free of the addiction.” Nowadays, Svoboda says, “the modern body often needs more than a week to adjust, but the principle of gradual removal is, when feasible, far better for the system than the sudden, cold-turkey method.”  

Problem #2:  We overeat poor-quality, lifeless food.

Ayurveda’s list of “dead foods” includes frozen, canned, and microwaved foods; processed foods that come in a bag or a box; overcooked or undercooked food; unripe or overripe food; stale or burned food.

Another problem, according to Frawley, is this: “We’re overeating food that is too heavy, too greasy, too oily, too processed, and too weight-producing. We use poor-quality oils and eat too much refined sugar, refined flour, fast foods. We have a diet that, according to Ayurveda, increases not only kapha, but also ama, or toxins, because of its lack of freshness and its lack of prana. And we don’t cook anymore; we microwave processed food. This food tends to be heavy and tends to accumulate as fat instead of being built up into better-quality tissues.” 

Ayurveda’s list of “dead foods” includes frozen, canned, and microwaved foods; processed foods that come in a bag or a box; overcooked or undercooked food; unripe or overripe food; stale or burned food. These foods have less prana than fresh food, says Frawley, and often contribute to the buildup of toxins in the body, which can lead to diseases of ama, like arthritis. As he explains, “The goal of eating is to absorb the prana of the food. If food doesn’t have prana in it, it doesn’t have a vitalizing effect on the body. Instead, it makes us heavy and sedentary.” 

Solution

The yogic rule of thumb is to eat “living” food: fresh fruits, veggies, rice, and beans that have been ripened by the sun and harvested as recently as possible. These whole-foods ingredients have a more nourishing, vitalizing effect on the body and mind, offering more satisfaction in smaller quantities and fewer calories than the more conventional fast foods.  

Problem #3:  Our digestive fire is weak.

According to Ayurveda, properly functioning agni, in the form of digestive fire, is one of the keys to healthy body weight (and to vibrant health in general). Agni helps us assimilate nutrients and eliminate wastes, or ama. When agni is balanced and burning brightly, we’re blessed with efficient digestion, minimal toxic buildup, healthy body weight, and a sense of energy and vitality. But when agni is weak, digestion is incomplete and leaves behind toxins that interfere with the flow of blood, lymph, and energy throughout the body. When we’re unable to rid ourselves of these wastes, ama accumulates and can lead to weight gain and, eventually, disease. 

Unfortunately, says Frawley, we do a lot of things that suppress agni (overeating, eating too frequently, eating too much heavy or cold food, sleeping too much, and not exercising enough) and very few things that strengthen it. 

Solution

Stoke your digestive fire with these simple Ayurvedic techniques: 

Solar work:
In the human body, the seat of agni is the solar plexus. Strengthening this area will kindle your digestive fire. So in addition to regular exercise, include abdominal strengtheners such as sit-ups, crunches, or leg-lifts for 5 to 10 minutes a day. And under the guidance of an experienced yoga teacher, learn the hatha yoga kriya practice of agni sara. 

The 12-hour fast:
According to Ayurveda, the body is programmed to direct its energy toward cleansing and assimilation in the hours just before midnight, when agni is the weakest. To support this process, Ayurvedic physicians recommend refraining from late-night snacks and going to bed around 10 p.m. They recommend fasting for 12 hours every night—between dinner and breakfast (7 p.m. to 7 a.m., for example). This frees the body from the burdens of meal-related digestion so it can conduct mental, emotional, and cellular cleansing in a more concentrated way. 

They recommend fasting for 12 hours every night—between dinner and breakfast (7 p.m. to 7 a.m., for example).

The 12-hour fast also respects agni’s daily waxing and waning cycle which, according to Ayurveda, corresponds to the rising and setting of the sun. That’s why it is wise to eat a healthy breakfast in the morning, eat your largest meal at noon when the sun is the strongest, eat a lighter dinner as the sun is waning, and then allow your stomach to rest until the sun comes up the following day. This fast supports metabolism, prevents ama accumulation, normalizes weight, and, according to Frawley, is especially recommended for people with kapha imbalances.

Other quick tips

  • Avoid taking cold drinks like ice water, milk, or Coke with your meals. They suppress agni and increase weight in the body. 
  • Add some mild spices such as ginger, black pepper, garlic, cinnamon, and clove to your food. This will also kindle agni. 
  • Make sure that your right nostril is open. According to the ancient texts, nostril dominance has subtle effects on your energy and can help or hinder your digestion. When the right nostril is dominant, the energy in your body is warm, active, and ideal for digestion.
  • When you finish eating, keep your right nostril open for a bit longer by taking a stroll for 5 to 10 minutes, or by lying on your left side in a quiet room. Don’t fall asleep, though—napping after a meal will impede the digestion process and encourage weight gain.
  • Fast for at least three hours after eating. This gives the body time to digest most of the previous meal before it begins digesting a new meal or a snack.  

Problem #4:  Mindless eating.

Lad points out that most Americans eat anywhere but at the kitchen table. We eat while we are watching TV, driving to work, walking down the street, talking on the phone, checking our e-mail. This is a bad idea, he says. How can you digest your food if you’re not paying attention to it? 

Solution

It is much healthier to sit down at the table and give full attention to your meal. “Before eating, ask yourself, ‘Am I really hungry, or not?’” Lad advises. Here are a few more tips to bring you into the present moment with your food:

Before you eat, do 5 minutes of diaphragmatic breathing. This activates the body’s rest-and-digest response, relaxing the nervous system and enhancing blood flow to the digestive organs. It also helps you tune into your body so that you eat only what your body needs. 

Say a prayer of thanks. Svoboda believes this is the most important of all the Ayurvedic rules of eating (and there are many) because “food is the prana, the life force, of all living beings.” In Ayurveda for Women, he writes, “Eating is a sacred act, an offering made into the internal digestive fire in much the same way that offerings are made into external sacrificial fires.”  

Eat in solitude or in pleasant company with a cheerful mind. Strong emotions distract your attention. Efficient digestion will take place when you eat at a relaxed pace, pay attention to the sensations of eating, and chew each bite of food 32 times.  

Problem #5:  We have become couch potatoes.

Only 24 percent of Americans work out vigorously at least three times a week, even though everyone knows that regular exercise is one of the main keys to weight loss (and to optimal health in general). Why, then, don’t we exercise more?

Frawley believes our couch potato habits reflect deeper social problems. “We don’t have enough physical or mental movement in our society,” he says. “We’re too dependent upon entertainment and stimulation. People are becoming more passive. It shows a basic lifestyle imbalance, and we have many.” 

“We don’t have enough physical or mental movement in our society. We’re too dependent upon entertainment and stimulation. People are becoming more passive. It shows a basic lifestyle imbalance, and we have many.”

Lad agrees. “Some people will sit on the couch with a big bucket of popcorn drenched in salt and butter and a large can of Coca-Cola and watch a football match—and that’s their exercise!” But people who want to lose weight can’t afford to be sedentary. As Lad points out, “American food is rich in calories, proteins, fat, and carbohydrates. But to digest rich food, you have to do rich exercise. Otherwise, the unburned calories add to the adipose tissue, and you become chubby.” 

From an Ayurvedic point of view, says Svoboda, exercise has countless benefits. In Ayurveda: Life, Health, and Longevity, he writes, “Exercise…enables more prana to reach the tissues by…clearing all channels, promoting circulation and the excretion of wastes, improving lung efficiency, destroying fat, and increasing stamina.” It also improves immune function, he says.

Solution

Ayurveda recommends that you exercise daily until sweat forms on the forehead, under the arms, and along the spine. This signals your breaking point, which comes when you reach 50 percent of your capacity. Stop here. Exercise that causes discomfort or strain is considered harmful because it gives your body extra repair work to do. A few other Ayurvedic principles: 

  • Exercise outdoors when possible.
  • Exercise alone or in pleasant company.
  • Don’t distract yourself by listening to music, watching TV, or talking excessively while you exercise. Ayurveda urges us to be mindful when we exercise; when you’re grounded in your body, you’re less likely to overdo and injure yourself.
  • Choose enjoyable activities that are suited to your nature, or prakriti. Your prakriti is composed of three doshas (humors): vata, pitta, and kapha. In most of us, one or two predominate. 

Vata types need exercise that is low impact (to protect their joints) and stabilizing. Because they tend to overdo it, they need to pay particular attention to their bodies and stop before they reach their breaking point. 

Pitta-dominant people will reap more benefits from activities that cool their fiery nature (like swimming) and encourage them to enjoy themselves instead of competing against others (like hiking).

Kapha types gravitate toward laid-back sports like golf but they benefit most from hard, sustained exercise that makes them break a sweat. 

Problem #6:  Emotional eating.

“There is a very important relationship between love and food. Food is the food of the body, and love is the food of the soul."

According to Svoboda, loneliness and fear can make you gain weight because these emotions will drive you to overeat. Lad has a similar opinion. “There is a very important relationship between love and food,” he explains. “Food is the food of the body, and love is the food of the soul. When individuals are missing love, they may try to seek love through food, but if their agni is not strong enough to assimilate, digest, absorb, and metabolize what they eat, they gain weight.” 

Svoboda has another take on the underlying causes of emotional eating. “We live in a very unstable world,” he says. “Political and economic forces are encouraging us to be uneasy. Unease creates anxiety, and anxiety creates vata. When there is plenty of vata, the organism experiences a sensation of danger, and this tells the mind to encourage the body to do all sorts of things to make it feel more stable. One way to create a greater sensation of stability is to increase the amount of mass in your system.” So according to Svoboda, people overeat in an attempt to create a sense of stability and calm their fears. 

Solution

If emotional eaters want to lose weight, says Svoboda, they will need to re-create a sense of stability for themselves through activities other than overeating. Lad recommends a regular routine of asana, pranayama, and meditation. These basic yoga practices are the best remedies for loneliness and fear, and, according to Lad, “they will help you drastically lose weight.”

Lad also recommends including an Ayurvedic dish called kitchari, a one-pot meal of seasoned rice and mung dal, in your diet. “Kitchari is the Sanskrit word for ‘food of God,’” Lad explains. “Ki also means ‘space,’ and chari means ‘move,’ so kitchari helps you move into the inner space, the inner sky of consciousness. It’s a wholesome, sattvic, balancing food that promotes cleansing and detoxification. Also, kitchari improves clarity of perception and promotes a calm, quiet, loving, and compassionate state of mind.

“When people are eating emotionally, the foods they choose don’t satisfy their cellular needs. This leads to more desire to eat, which leads to bingeing and other eating disorders. Kitchari, on the other hand, gives the body cellular satisfaction.” 

An Empowering Way to Lose Weight

Ayurvedic experts have always been skeptical of quick-fix weight-loss tactics because there is no magic pill, no perfect diet, no flawless surgery to make our excess flab disappear. It takes a long time to become clinically overweight, and it takes a long time to whittle our way down to a healthy weight again. 

While pill popping, crash dieting, and gastric bypass procedures may produce dramatic, short-term weight loss, the risks are high and the benefits illusory. Yet in spite of all this, the demand for quick fixes continues to skyrocket. Half of all herbs sold in the United States are geared for weight loss, and the Federal Trade Commission estimates that annual revenue from sales of diet foods and beverages is a whopping $40 billion. Entrepreneurs everywhere are selling the new American dream: “Lose weight, burn fat, and build muscle effortlessly and become healthy, happy, and sexy.” But selling the dream is not the same as offering a solution. For that, we need to look to the wisdom of Ayurveda. 

If you’re struggling with your weight or know someone who is, you may want to consider the weight-loss strategies that Frawley, Lad, and Svoboda offer here. These low-tech solutions—making gradual dietary changes, eating prana-rich food, stoking digestive fire, eating with full attention, exercising regularly, and practicing yoga—can help us shed pounds in ways that enhance our health instead of harming it. But the excess weight will gradually melt away—never to reappear.  

Did You Know?

  • Although 64% of Americans are overweight or obese, only 30% realize they are too heavy.
  • 25% of all vegetables eaten in the United States are french fries.
  • American teens drink nearly twice as much soda as milk. Twenty years ago, the ratio was reversed.
  • 30% of kids between 6 and 19 years old are obese, overweight, or in danger of becoming overweight.
  • 86% of kids who are obese get that way before their sixth birthday. According to Ayurvedic expert Robert E. Svoboda, “Children who are overfed poor diets are sure to develop a large number of fat cells, and until the ends of their lives they will find it easy to gain weight and difficult to take it off again. Fat babies make for fat adults.”
  • In the 1970s, kids were exposed to about 20,000 TV ads a year. Today they see about 40,000. Researchers estimate that up to 70% of those ads are for food. According to Time, “Ads for high-fat, high-salt foods have more than doubled since the 1980s, while commercials for fruits and vegetables remain in shortsupply.”
  • For the first time in history, there are as many overfed, overweight people in the world as those who are underfed and underweight.
  • In 1950, Americans spent one-fifth of their income on food. Today we spend a mere one-tenth.

Exercise Facts

  • People who walk for 30 minutes a day are healthier than those who opt for high-intensity workouts.
  • Studies show that people who exercise regularly feel more confident, capable, and able to handle life’s challenges than those who don’t.
  • Every additional daily hour that you spend in a car (instead of walking, biking, rollerblading, etc.) will increase your obesity risk by 6 percent.

Shannon Sexton
Former Yoga International editor-in-chief Shannon Sexton writes about food, travel, yoga, and natural health.