Through decades of research, more than 75 books and countless media appearances, Dr. Deepak Chopra has pursued and promoted the mind-body connection as an avenue toward better health.
An avid proponent of the medical benefits of alternative therapies and meditative practices, Chopra has watched as scientific findings have caught up to the principles he's always advanced, as study after study has endorsed, for example, the importance of stress reduction for reducing inflammation and a variety of chronic conditions.
"There's no question that mind-body medicine has come of age," Chopra says. "The science is documenting that."
Chopra recently turned his attention to diet in a new book, What Are You Hungry For? He is also exploring the mind-body connection to longevity through "Timeless You," an online course produced with Grandparents.com.
(MORE: Timeless You: Part 1 of Deepak Chopra's Online Course on Aging Well)
In an interview with Next Avenue, Chopra said he got the idea for the diet book and a related PBS special a few years ago when he realized that, despite his generally healthy habits, he was about 20 pounds overweight. The book shares the actions he took to get fit and prescribes steps, for both mind and body, to help readers achieve their goals as well.
It's a mission more crucial than ever, he says, as rates of obesity and chronic illness continue to rise. "Most of the major epidemics of civilization — kidney disease, strokes, heart attacks, autoimmune disorders, chronic illness of any kind — can be traced to lifestyle," Chopra says.
"We must do something about this major epidemic. Everything depends on the health of our people," he says. "We have these ongoing discussions about health-care reform, but that has nothing to do with health care. It's insurance reform — and no amount of it will improve the health and well-being of the citizens of this country. We have to take responsibility for ourselves.
"The reason to do this," he adds, "is not necessarily to look better, but to avoid major medical problems like diabetes."
Why We Overeat and How We Can Stop
A critical element of Chopra's new program is realizing why we eat the way we do. "You put food in your body either because you're hungry for food and nutrition or because you're hungry for something else," he says. More often than not, he believes, that something else is hunger to fill an emotional hole. Overeating, he says, "is not going to solve those problems," but when we can address core issues like shame, failure and toxic relationships, we can shed our "baggage," and replace old, negative thoughts with new, positive ones. That, not signing on to the latest diet plan, is the first step to shedding pounds, he says.
"If there was an ideal diet, by now we would have found it," says Chopra, insisting that most plans fail because they do not look at the whole person. "Food is just part of the whole mix," he notes, along with activity, personal relationships and emotional well-being.
When we can identify the emotional triggers that lead us to eat, he says, we can monitor them and act differently when they manifest, even by simply substituting other activities at moments when stress would otherwise lead us to snack, such as doing chores, talking to friends or co-workers, reading, drinking water or taking a walk. As we become more self-aware and mindful, we're in a better position to address our weight.
For all its emphasis on our emotional state, including an embrace of meditation and other relaxation practices, Chopra's prescription is firmly rooted in science. "Even the way our food is metabolized depends on our emotional state," he says. "It should be obvious that if you are stressed when you're eating, cortisol [a primary stress hormone] will influence how that food is metabolized."
(MORE: How the Mind-Gut Connection Affects Your Health)
When Chopra, who is not a vegetarian, began his effort to lose weight, he eliminated red meat, cheese, processed foods and refined white sugar from his diet and cut back on salt as well. He also paid closer attention to his sleep patterns. In tune with much recent research, Chopra sees sleep as a crucial element of weight loss and health management.
Inadequate rest throws off the balance between leptin and ghrelin, the hormones that regulate feelings of hunger and satiety. Without proper sleep, we can overeat more easily, Chopra says, because our bodies send the wrong hormonal messages. A buildup of belly fat disturbs the same hormonal balance, he says, creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
Expand Your Diet, Improve Your Health
Chopra returns frequently to the theme of the body as a feedback loop and emphasizes the need to reset it. "We need to look at the body in terms of systems biology, not just molecular biology," he says.
One way to do that is with a shift to broader eating habits. Chopra identifies six fundamental tastes among all the foods we could potentially eat: sweet, sour and salty — the core elements of junk food — as well as bitter, pungent and astringent. The latter two tastes, pervasive in many traditional diets from around the world, including Chinese, Thai, Indian and Mexican, involve many foods that appear to have significant preventive health benefits, such as garlic, ginger, tea, legumes, cranberries, spinach and pomegranates.
"We've lost sight of that fact in our emphasis on sweet, sour, salt and fat — the typical fast-food diet of French fries, hamburgers and ketchup, washed down with Coke, which in itself is addictive and perpetuates a vicious cycle of imbalance," Chopra says. "It results in the body not getting phytochemical nutrients it needs from other tastes."
We have also lost our connection to the simple joy of eating, he claims. "Celebration and joy have always been part of the ritual of eating," Chopra says. "Joy has its own biochemistry, which we need to look at in great detail. It's associated with more dopamine and serotonin," neurotransmitters that boost good feelings, "and immunoregulators that fine-tune the immune system. And we must look at how it affects food metabolism as well."
In other words, we need to learn more about the mind-body connection and how it relates to our diet. Then we can apply those lessons to our own habits. "Your body," says Chopra, "can become your ally in finding a better way to live."
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