Introduction: East Meets West: The Best of Both Worlds
If you're reading this book, it's probably because you already have four or five diet books on your shelf, you've tried them all, and none has worked for you over the long haul. Either you didn't lose the weight the book promised you would or the food you were "allowed" to eat was so restrictive and boring that eventually, sooner or later, you simply couldn't stick to the plan. Many of those books probably contain good, accurate, useful information. The problem, as I've discovered during my seventeen years working in the health and fitness industry, is that there's now so much information available, and so much of it appears to be contradictory, that everyone -- from competitive athletes to doctors to weekend warriors to couch potatoes -- is confused and frustrated.
The weight-loss industry -- including diet books, diet plans, diet pills, and diet supplements -- is now a $50 billion industry in the United States, yet more than 50 percent of Americans remain overweight. According to the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 26 percent of those are considered obese or grossly overweight, a figure that has nearly doubled in the last two decades. We're bombarded daily with nutritional information, most of us think we know what we "should" or "shouldn't" be eating, yet nothing, so far, has worked for the average American who steps on and off the diet merry-go-round three to four times each year.
A "nutraceutical" is defined as any food or part of a food that has a medical or health benefit -- from dietary supplements to herbal products to processed foods. Nutraceuticals World, the trade magazine of the nutraceutical industry, noted in 1999 that "nine out of ten shoppers (90%) understand the relationship between nutrition and health. In fact, more than half of primary shoppers feel that just eating healthfully can greatly reduce the risk of developing certain diseases." If that's the case, there is still a piece missing from this puzzle, because we're more overweight than ever yet our diets are lacking in many nutrients, including the good, monounsaturated fats and essential fatty acids. We suffer from an overabundance of poor-quality food and a lack of activity despite the billions spent on health club memberships, exercise equipment, and personal trainers. The big question, obviously, is why, despite our apparent understanding of the issues, can virtually no one stick to a diet or an exercise plan. Why is it that, whatever the diet -- whether it be for health or fitness or weight loss -- Americans simply are not complying, even though we all think we know what we're "supposed" to be eating? Why are we the most diet-crazed country in the world and yet also the most overweight, and apparently the most frustrated by our failure?
My experience has shown me that the answer lies, at least in part, with our cravings for foods we think we shouldn't be eating. As soon as we become stressed or overwhelmed, those cravings take over and we "blow" our diet. We're all living with enormous amounts of stress, and those cravings are our way of trying to get some relief. But why do we crave what we do? And why is it that a food like chocolate can have so much power over us? I have found that the combination of Eastern medical practices, such as Ayurveda, with the modern science of Western nutrition, finally provides the answers to these continually frustrating questions.
Even so mainstream an organization as The American Dietetic Association, in a recent journal article, states that traditional approaches to weight loss simply haven't worked. "For many years, research and practice in the field of weight management has been based largely on a unidimensional, simplistic, weight-loss paradigm. The long-term success rate for persons using this paradigm has been low...the literature indicates that few dieters actually reach their goal weight....Very few of those who do lose weight sustain their new weight; thus, they increase their risk for the development of a pattern of weight cycling." The "experts" are frustrated too.
The fact is that there is no one magic formula to satisfy everyone's individual nutritional needs. Only by satisfying our individual needs on a daily basis, as part of our everyday lifestyle, will we be able to stop the cravings that have, so far, prevented us from maintaining optimum weight and optimum health. Only Ayurveda takes into account all aspects of our physical and emotional individuality and offers a comprehensive program for daily living that allows each one of us to recognize the foods we crave as something our body needs (in a nonaddictive situation) and that we are -- fruitlessly -- denying. To quote one of my teachers, Pat Hansen, M.S., a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute for Yoga and Ayurveda, in Boulder, Colorado: "Only Ayurveda asks the key nutritional questions -- for whom? under what conditions? at what time of year?" Once you understand how to answer those questions for yourself, you will find yourself eating the foods that are appropriate to your specific physical and emotional type, under particular environmental and emotional circumstances, as dictated by the changing seasons. You'll understand how to nurture and nourish your body's needs in ways that are satisfying and healthy, by incorporating herbs and spices in simple ways that will help satisfy your taste buds, improve your digestion and energy, and even help to cut body fat, without adding additional calories, carbohydrates, or fat.
But how are you supposed to decipher all the weight loss and nutritional information that's available when even with a master's degree in nutrition and exercise physiology, and seventeen years in the fitness industry, I too have struggled with my weight and obsessed about everything I ate, as have so many other fitness and medical professionals? Although I've never been severely overweight, and I've always been active and fit, my weight has fluctuated from a low of 115 to a high of 157 pounds. Food was always an issue for me, just as it was for everyone else I knew; I was always either "watching it" or on a diet. I also suffered from digestive problems I thought were normal, and my energy and moods would fluctuate, depending on what I'd been eating. I sensed there had to be a connection, but I was as frustrated as everyone else about how to fix it, and I tried every diet out there.
Over the last five or six years, after discovering Ayurveda and "integrative" medicine, I've come to realize that food should not be an issue; it should help you manage stress, not create more, and food cravings are a signal that something is wrong, either physically or emotionally, and your body is trying to bring the problem to your attention. But it's been a long road to enlightenment.
When I received my undergraduate degree in nutrition and business from Queens College in 1982, fitness was not the flourishing industry it has since become. While I was still an undergraduate -- actually starting when I was in high school -- I had begun teaching aerobics and strength training at a well-known East Coast fitness center. I was seventeen years old, in great shape, and I loved the fitness business. I tried other fields, but I never felt I belonged in "corporate America." Helping overstressed executives get out of the office and into the gym made me happy. I then began dating a competitive natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, learned a lot about strength training and sports nutrition, and started working toward my master's degree in nutrition and exercise physiology at New York University. As part of my coursework, I was required to complete a year's medical internship working as a clinical nutritionist with patients at Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan. It was an eye-opening experience. All the interns at the hospital were, of course, young, and a lot of them were good-looking, but they were almost all overweight, they smoked, drank too much coffee to stay awake, didn't have time to exercise, and never got enough sleep. The people I'd met in the fitness industry weren't all perfect examples of a healthy lifestyle, but their lives revolved around health and fitness, and at the time, they appeared to be light-years ahead of the medical profession when it came to diet, exercise, and preventative health. Ironically, Beth Israel Hospital in New York City has opened an "integrative" medical division run by many prestigious medical doctors who understand the benefits of bringing both worlds together.
That year of internship cemented my determination to direct my skills in the areas of nutrition and fitness toward preventative health and teaching basic stress management and lifestyle modification. As I now explain to my clients, Western medicine is at its most brilliant in emergency situations, but the goal should be to try to avoid those emergencies.
In 1991 I accepted the position of sales and marketing director at the then brand-new Peninsula Hotel/Spa -- the first day spa of its kind to open in New York City. Our clients were the high-stress, high-energy, top executives and CEOs from many of the Fortune 500 companies in midtown Manhattan. It was a great learning experience to see them rush in like madpeople and leave ninety minutes later, after a massage, or a workout, or a yoga class, purring like pussycats -- more focused, centered, and grounded. During my five years at the Peninsula, I gained enormous insight into the benefits obtained by combining stress management and fitness -- something that many Eastern and European cultures have known for centuries. The International Spa Association has been trying to educate Americans about the health benefits of stress management for years. Many studies show that modalities such as massage, yoga, aromatherapy, meditation, and other such techniques are not mere indulgences but preventative medicine. In the late eighties and early nineties, all this was very new. "No pain, no gain" was still the prevailing mantra of fitness enthusiasts. Now yoga, meditation, visualization, and Pilates are a common part of the fitness world.
I had also just begun to implement the nutrition program at The Peninsula and had started to introduce the concept to many of the editors of health and fitness magazines. Although it was clear the program would be successful, I knew in my heart that something was still missing -- I just didn't know, at the time, what it was. We had all the information about sports nutrition, stress management, and fitness, but our clients still couldn't seem to get off the diet merry-go-round.
It was in 1994 that all the information started to come together. When I was working at the Peninsula I had the unfortunate but serendipitous experience of "blowing out" the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in my knee while skiing. Because I had been working out for so long, my legs were very strong but also very tight. After the accident, I had difficulty getting back my full range of motion, and physical therapy was extremely painful. Up to that point, I'd had no desire to try yoga or felt I needed any kind of stress management because, as a typical type A New Yorker, I had always considered such nonstrenuous exercise a waste of time when I could be really working out. I, too, belonged to the "no pain, no gain" school of fitness. Eventually, upon the urging of one of the Peninsula's yoga instructors, and against the advice of my orthopedic surgeon, who was simply unfamiliar with the therapeutic benefits of yoga, I did finally wind up in a yoga class for the injured and elderly at the Integral Yoga Center, simply because I couldn't stand the physical therapy any longer. I was amazed by the difference it made in a very short time.
Although it was very gentle, it was also extremely effective. My physical therapy was no longer so torturous, and my range of motion came back much more quickly. The effect on my mind was dramatic as well, and I began to understand the benefits of "calming down" my driven personality. I can actually remember hobbling out of my first or second class and realizing that even though I was standing in the middle of Broadway, I simply didn't hear the traffic noise. I just "floated" home. It's amazing to me now to see how we all receive the lessons we need in life, even if we don't recognize them in the moment!
A lot happened that year. At about the same time, my very dear, twenty-eight-year-old friend Janine was diagnosed with leukemia, and a while later, my grandmother fell and broke her hip. For three years, my friend fought valiantly through two bone marrow transplants and three rounds of chemotherapy. Although her doctors tried their best, her body continued to deteriorate, and the treatments were very difficult for her to endure. In the end, when there was nothing left for the doctors to do, she and her family sought out a nutritionist who specialized in a holistic approach to cancer. I watched her energy and color begin to improve a bit as he attempted to help rebuild and "detoxify" her system using organic fruits and vegetables and herbs. It became a proactive experience and something positive she and her family could participate in after all the treatments. She also began to work with the yoga teacher and reiki instructor who had helped me to rehabilitate my knee. I watched Janine gain some peace spiritually, and even her physician noted that he had never before seen a patient manage pain so well at that end stage of leukemia. Even though Janine did finally pass away, it was a very sad but profound experience. It helped me to understand the power and benefits of a more "holistic" approach to life and death and of treating the "whole" person. My grandmother died three months after Janine, and I wish she had been able to receive the same kind of help, but she was never offered these complementary therapies. Her treatment followed strictly traditional, old school paradigms, and as frustrated as I was, I simply had to let her go.
After my experiences with my friend, my grandmother, and my knee, I decided it was time for me to leave the spa and fitness world and return to the medical community, but this time I wanted to be in a place that combined Eastern and Western medicine. It was in 1996 that I moved to Colorado and found work in a newly opened medical center in Denver where they were doing just that. The facility combined traditional and complementary medicine, and seeing how the two could work together was another enlightening experience. I was convinced this was the direction in which the health industry ought to be moving.
At the same time, I began working as a nutritionist with Wild Oats natural markets, where I got an astounding on-the-job education in herbal and natural medicine. It was the perfect complement to my work at the medical center. Then I met Sarasvati Buhrman, Ph.D., who holds a doctorate in anthropology and is a skilled Ayurvedic practitioner and herbalist. She is, with Pat Hansen, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute for Yoga and Ayurveda in Boulder, Colorado. I wanted to learn more about yoga and meditation, and when Sarasvati found out I was a nutritionist, she suggested I take a class she was teaching in Ayurvedic medicine for Westerners. That class changed my life and my career. I finally saw the vital connections between the medical profession, the food and nutrition industries, the fitness industry, and the spa industry. Ayurveda provided the key that allowed me to understand why so many Americans were having so much trouble with weight management, digestive disorders, and the many chronic, nagging complaints that were sapping their energies and keeping them from feeling really good. And it provided me with insights into how food cravings were undermining people's attempts to comply with any dietary regimen they might try. The answers were there. Why hadn't I ever heard of this before, even though I had worked in the industry so long and held a master's degree in nutrition?
Many Eastern medical practices, such as acupuncture, which stems from traditional Chinese medicine, have gained a degree of acceptance in the United States and are now approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Yoga and Ayurveda, however, are just beginning to gain a degree of generalized popularity or understanding in this country. I think one of the reasons it's been a slow integration is because these Eastern practices seem so vast and "foreign" to the typical American that simply the thought of attempting to master their intricacies is too daunting for most people. And even those who have heard about it might think that following an Ayurvedic diet would mean eating nothing but Indian food.
I believe that we have found a way to make a few of the basic principles of Ayurveda a bit simpler and easier to understand, and more applicable to the traditional Western lifestyle. My business, The Balanced Approach, started growing as I began to learn how to help clients incorporate basic Ayurvedic principles into a simple day-to-day routine. Bringing the wisdom of the East to the people of the West has become my dharma, or life's work, as they say in Eastern philosophy. I hope that by doing so, I will help you find peace with the food you eat; improve your energy level, your digestion, and your health; and, at the same time, attain the degree of fitness and the weight you have always been seeking. The fun part is learning about taste and spices and flavors to help you feel satisfied and reach your goals.
Ayurveda is a five-thousand-year-old medical healing system that originates from India but whose principles can be applied to meet the needs of any individual of any cultural background. To quote from the International Journal of Integrative Medicine, it is "one of the oldest forms of medicine in the world, and the forerunner of other great systems of medicine. It is one of five government-approved medical models in present-day India, and is also recognized by the World Health Organization as a viable system of natural medicine." The word Ayurveda translates to mean "the science of life." Its theories will complement any health, medical, or fitness program and hold true whether you're eating in a salad bar on Fifth Avenue, in a Japanese or Mexican restaurant, or in a kitchen in Des Moines. It provides insights into how to understand your individual genetic constitutional type, how to listen to your body to determine its responses to stress, foods, weather changes, and other internal and external conditions that can cause your system to go out of balance, and how to learn when it is necessary to change or moderate your diet in order to adjust to your own changing physical and emotional needs. It is a gentle and nurturing medical system that can work in conjunction with Western medicine and sports nutrition to individualize virtually any fitness program or medical treatment plan.
Western medicine is based on a knowledge of biochemistry and macronutrients -- the correct ratios of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates -- but, as I've discovered in the course of my seventeen-year journey (and as more and more people are now beginning to understand), Western medicine doesn't have all the answers. Even doctors who are skilled in complementary medicine, whether they are naturopaths, osteopaths, or M.D.'s, I find, are still missing some valuable information about their clients if they aren't familiar with the concept of differing constitutional types and the ways each is affected by stress and the environment. By mastering the basic principles of Ayurveda, you can come to understand the "qualities" of food -- such as whether they are light or heavy, dry or oily, hot or cold -- how they apply to what you eat day to day, and how they correlate to your cravings. We'll be discussing these qualities in detail in the following chapter; suffice it to say here that the concept explains how the various nutrients work with your own body to keep your systems in balance and working as efficiently as possible -- and it allows you to understand why, on a hot summer day, you are likely to crave something creamy, cold, and sweet, such as a mocha frappaccino.
But this is not an either/or situation. I certainly haven't forgotten about or cast aside everything I'd previously learned about nutrition and biochemistry. Rather, I've found that what I've learned from Ayurveda works as a perfect complement to Western medicine and Western nutrition or to any other philosophy. It provides the perfect balanced approach to nutritional health and fitness.
Personally, I've finally arrived at a place where I'm at peace with food, and I'm happy to say that many of my clients are getting there, too. Maintaining my weight is no longer a problem; it's not something I even have to think about anymore, and I'm never "on a diet." I know from my own experience that it's possible to create strong digestion, lose body fat, increase energy, look younger, feel stronger, and still eat food that is satisfying, sensual, nurturing, and nourishing. But how could you, as a layperson, be expected to figure it out if so many of the experts are as frustrated in their efforts to solve the health and weight problems in this country as you are?
My goal is to help people who are frustrated about food and dieting to understand these principles. I believe my job as a nutritionist is to bring together the incredible wealth of information available from all sources -- Ayurveda, the Western medical profession, the fitness industry, and Western and integrative nutritional science -- and try to explain it in a way that is practical, simple, and applicable to a hectic, busy lifestyle. I would also like to help Americans realize that, above all, food should be pleasurable. In fact, you might say that my real goal is to help re-create the entire nutritional paradigm in America!
Unfortunately, most Americans have come to think of food as the enemy, when in fact it is the giver of life. We're phobic about fat, and most of us simply don't get enough protein. We seem to think that satisfying our hunger is "giving in" to weakness, and the notion that we ought to derive sensory satisfaction from food has all but flown out the window. In Stop Your Cravings I'll be offering many suggestions and recipes for ways to combine different tastes, textures, and qualities of food, and I'll explain how to use herbs and spices in ways that are simple but satisfying. I'll include simple recipes from chefs and cooking instructors who will show you how truly easy this can be. Too many Americans have lost touch with what it's like to cook and eat whole fresh foods -- foods that really do taste much better and actually take less time to prepare because their natural flavors are so much more vibrant and distinctive. I'll even take you on a shopping trip through the supermarket and health food store, aisle by aisle, so that you'll always have a pantry full of the ingredients you need to create simple meals that you'll like, meals that are appropriate for your particular constitutional type, meals that will keep your body in balance and your weight where you want it to be. My goal is to help you build muscle, trim fat, and become grounded and balanced -- an energized, lean, mean fighting machine.
Do you like Italian food? Mexican food? Chinese or Japanese food? Have you been taught to believe that Italian has too much pasta, Mexican and Chinese have too much fat, and Japanese has too much salt? Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, these traditional "ethnic" cuisines actually provide a much better way of eating than the starchy, carbohydrate-heavy, low-fat diet most Americans have been following in an effort to stay slim and healthy -- an effort, by the way, that has obviously failed to achieve its purpose. The traditional Mediterranean, Asian, Indian, and Mexican diets are based on a balance of good protein, healthy fats and oils, and non-gluten carbohydrates, flavored with aromatic herbs and spices to provide a variety of satisfying tastes that also strengthen and maximize digestion and health.
I arrived at The Balanced Approach as the name for my nutrition/weight management program because I think it so clearly encompasses the various aspects of what I am trying to convey. It refers to integrating a balance between the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda and the modern wisdom of Western nutritional science. It reflects the idea that once you learn how to keep your body in balance, you will begin to digest and utilize the foods you eat with greater efficiency. And it underscores the importance of achieving a proper balance among the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates that are appropriate for your particular constitutional type and your exercise or activity level.
Once you understand these basic principles and begin to apply them, you'll be surprised by how much better you feel, you'll wonder at the variety of discomforts you used to think of as "normal," and you'll be thrilled as your weight drops while you actually enjoy what you're eating. It really is possible to attain these goals without making your life more difficult or your diet more restrictive.
Finally, I would like to provide you with some insights into the bigger picture -- how our food choices are affecting not only our own health, but also the health of the land, the environment, the animals, and ultimately our children. My goal is to help Americans create a healthier, more balanced relationship with food -- and maybe at the same time to reallocate some of the money we are currently spending on weight loss to fund children's education and hunger projects, as well as environmental projects, and thus make a difference to the future of our planet. (I also hope to help some people who do not read this book: we will donate 5 percent of our profits to children's hunger programs and enivronmental projects.) Thank you for reading.
Copyright © 2002 by Jennifer Workman