According to a study published by the World Health Organization in 2016, 39% of the world’s population is overweight with 13% being obese. This number is steadily on the rise, in-spite of increased awareness.
Enough has been said about the obvious causes of weight gain that range from processed, junk and high calorie foods to eating disorders. Yet, even the most health conscious struggle with healthy weight loss.
We seem to be missing something. Optimum weight should not require food deprivation or exercise mania. It should come from a healthy body with good metabolism. The input (right food and exercise) is important but how that input is processed is even more important. This is where to two secret factors to stubborn weight come in.
Not Eating Mindfully
Most people who find it difficult to lose weight or to maintain it, are suffering from Compromised Agni. They may try to look for answers in extensive dieting and exercising but they fail to understand that the answer lies within their own body’s framework.
What is Agni?
Agni is to our body is what the sun is to the universe. Any type of transformation in the universe requires heat and Agni is that heat in our body. Agni is the reason why we homo-sapiens can maintain our body temperature at 37*C. Agni in the belly can also be called digestive fire and it takes on the great task of processing our food by dividing it into nutrients and waste.
It doesn’t matter how healthy or nutritious your food may be – without the right fire you will not be able to put it to any use. In fact, even the simplest foods may cause symptoms and weight gain.
By the same logic, when your Agni is functioning well, even the most complex foods can be used well by your body. Lack of Agni or Variable Agni leads not only to diseases like hypothyroidism and obesity but also to a range of auto-immune disorders.
You can compare Agni to the flame on which you cook food. For your food to cook well, the flame needs to be at the right level for the right amount of time.
What types Agni contribute to weight gain?
Low – Low Agni is when your body does not have the level of Agni it would take to optimize food processing. Digestion may take longer and sometimes be incomplete leading to extra bodily tissue or weight. It can be compared to cooking food on a stove which has a really minute flame. Those with a Kapha Prakruti may naturally lean towards Low Agni.
Variable – Variable Agni can also be a culprit. Variable Agni, usually caused by irregular eating patterns and yo-yo diets can leave Agni high at times or low at other times. Imagine cooking food on a really high flame and then abruptly lowering it to a minimum. You will end up burning some parts and may leave other parts undercooked. Such becomes the state of your food. The under transformed food quickly adds to the fat cells in your body.
What are the enemies of Agni?
Since we have now established that Agni is paramount for optimum weight and health, lets look at some of the enemies of Agni.
Snacking – Snacking does not give Agni a chance to refuel itself.
Eating at irregular times – There is such a thing as Agni memory. Your Agni functions at its best if it knows when to expect food according to your biological clock.
Yo-Yo Diets – Extreme diet followed by extreme bingeing can lead to variable Agni, which in turn can lead to weight gain.
Cold Foods – Like cold water and ice-cream are like water on fire, shocking and shutting down the function of Agni.
Raw Foods – Need to undergo a great level of transformation, thereby put a lot of strain on Agni. In the short term, salads may make you lose weight as they are so light but they also lower the strength of your Agni leading to weight gain when you switch back to regular food. They also don’t provide enough nutrition to your tissues.
Extremely Heavy Foods – like pizza and cheese require a lot of heat, thereby utilize a lot of Agni strength.
Heavy Diet Programs – Where there is no fuel, there is no fire. If you don’t feed your Agni regularly, it will go out. When you finally give up your diet, you’ll find yourself easily susceptible to weight gain.
A Lethargic or Immobile Lifestyle – Movement stokes Agni, keeping it in good shape. This is why exercise makes you hungry. When you have a very lethargic lifestyle, the Agni does not get stoked and this leads to weight gain.
What can you do to build and restore Agni?
If your Agni is compromised, you can utilize these simple measures to bring it up to speed. Once your Agni is functioning well, make sure to avoid the pitfalls mentioned above.
Use Agni kindling spices like asofestida, cardammom, cloves, pepper, long pepper, cinnamon, cumin, coriander seeds and fennel.
Consume Ghee in small quantities. Ghee is great fuel that keeps the Agni steady.
Bathe and exercise before eating in the morning.
Bhastrika Pranayam and Kapal Bhaati Pranayam can be useful if you don’t have excess body heat.
Agni Building asanas like Pawanmuktasan, Ardha-Matsyendrasana, Marichi-asana, Parivritta-trikonasana are good for all.
Check to see if your Agni is functioning well. Timely elimination, regular hunger, asymptomatic digestion, steady weight and the ability to tolerate junk or heavy foods occasionally are signs of a robust Agni.
Not Eating Mindfully
The second hidden cause of weight gain, or rather the inability to lose weight is Not Eating Mindfully. Even those who make the healthiest food choices may find themselves in this trap.
Not eating mindfully does not necessarily mean binge-eating. It means eating without your mind focussing entirely on the food. There are a multitude of reasons why we may eat mindlessly.
As Kids, a lot of us were fed at the first sound of a cry. Many a time, the cry may not have even been for food. But food was used as a distraction from another discomfort. As this pattern continues into adulthood, it becomes a habit pattern and can turn into a stress-eating disorder. Every time we feel uneasy, we may find ourselves reaching for food.
With busy lives and gadgets, multi-tasking during mealtimes is not uncommon. This again leads to mindless eating.
But why does mindless eating lead to weight gain?
When we are not fully tuned into our food and hunger, we allow our minds to be preoccupied by other thoughts. Thus, we tend not only to overeat, but also end up picking options that are not the healthiest. We eat faster, chew lesser and may even adopt the wrong posture. All of these factors contribute to weight gain.
Another reason is that when you are fully tuned into your food (Also called being in the present moment), your body and brain function in the “rest and digest mode.” Simply put, you produce more saliva, more digestive enzymes, the glucose stays within the cells and is not released in the blood, there is lowered cortisol and adrenaline production and the heart-beat is regular. When food is consumed in such a state, it will be metabolized effectively. You will be able to absorb nutrients effectively and everything else will be treated as waste. It’s like a blender that is working on the highest setting.
So the trick is to set some time aside for mealtimes. Start by taking a few deep breaths, tuning in, smelling your food, touching it, really tasting it and then chewing it till you paste it. You will eat less, feel more fulfilled and be leaner and healthier.
Let’s start looking at weight loss the right way. If we start with Mindful Consumption, Balanced Agni and Active Lifestyles as our primary goals, we will begin to realize that Optimum Weight will be achieved automatically, as a side effect. It will no longer be hard work!
This article was originally written for the Ayurveda Journal