In a typical yoga class a lot is spoken about alignment, breathing, mindfulness but never do we tap on nutrition. It's how we fuel our body, it has a large influence on how we practice and how we will feel. So, why is it that nutrition is so often left out of the yogic equation? One answer could be that we don't know which diet is right for us. There are so many contrasting theories it's hard to know which one is best. Listed below are my sixcardinal rules for proper nutrition. Not only are these rules easy to follow, but they give you oodles of wiggle room and are appropriate for anybody in any lifestyle- vegetarians, vegans, athletes, yogis, mommies etc...
RULE #1 Eat every three hours (Oh, and stop fasting)
Stop fasting. Stop cleansing, detoxing, calorie scorching. Stop punishing yourself in the name of health or weight loss- trust me your body doesn't like it and it doesn't work. At some point we were all told or convinced that fasting is good for us. This is a form of viparyaya- a miseducation regarded as truth . Let it go. It doesn't serve you. Unless you are directed to do so by a doctor, fasting is forever a never.
Chronic fasting can result in a disruption of hunger signals and an inability to recognize fullness. If you don't respond to hunger knocking at that internal door, it will eventually stop knocking! Eating then occurs in response to stimuli other than true hunger and that's when the trouble begins, oftentimes resulting in emotional eating and binging.
"But Abbe, I've read certain juice cleanses can help remove toxins from the body!"
The premise of doing juice cleanses and other types of liquid detox regimens is false, said Liz Applegate, director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis. "The body does not need any help in getting rid of toxins," she said. [see 4 Myths About Juice Cleansing]
There are detoxifying enzymes in the liver that break down alcohol and other drugs, and the kidneys handle water-soluble toxins. When we fail to fuel and nourish our body those organs can't do thier job.
So eat! And do so every three hours.
Here's why- Anytime you exceed five hours without eating that constitutes a fast.
It takes exactly one hour for solid food to leave the stomach, and an addition two hours for your stomach enzymes to completely replenish. After these three hours your body is at maximum digestive efficiency and it's time to eat again.
"Hunger causes the same biological responses as stress. Hunger releases the stress hormone called cortisol, which is linked to fat storage, heart disease and is known to feed cancer cells."
Many nutrition practices recommend allowing three hours between meals (such as Ayurveda) and for good reason. Hunger causes the same biological responses as stress. Failure to eat after these three hours causes your blood sugar to drop and when your blood sugar drops cortisol (the stress hormone) is released to spike back up your insulin level. You can usually feel the exact moment that cortisol is released; stomach pain, headaches, heaviness in your eyes. Cortisol increases your heart rate while simultaneously bringing your metabolism to an almost complete stop. When your metabolism drops your body dives into storage mode, it starts storing fats and stops production of sex hormones which can take days or even weeks to re-regulate. Studies now show that cortisol, our hunger and stress hormone, is responsible for feeding cancer cells!
Rule #2 Use moderation
So we've covered when we should eat, now we can cover how much. There is a lot of gurus who suggest fasting for several hours before a yoga class so that you're practicing on an empty stomach. Even one of my favorite gurus B.K.S. Iyengar says we should fast for six hours before practicing pranayama! Perhaps for such an advanced practitioner such as Iyengar, fasting for six hours then practicing pranayama would not lead to a total loss of consciousness, but if your average Joe-yoga were to starve for six hours then practice pranayama- chances are they're going to pass out due to low blood sugar and lack of oxygen.
On the opposite extreme, eating a heavy meal right before a yoga class is not a good idea, either. Use portion control. Although I disagree with his pranayama restrictions, B.K.S. Iyengar has it right when he suggests starting an asana practice one hour after a light meal, then eating again a half hour after practice. This lines up perfectly with our three-hour digestive cycle we discussed earlier.
The next question usually is: how should I portion each food group? Equal parts protein and starch, remembering to keep your starch low glycemic (meaning low or no sugar), and your vegetable portion to equal your protein and starch combined.
Rule #3 Eat breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up
In the quest for proper nutrition, this little nugget is the holy grail.
The saying is "it's called breakfast because you are breaking the fast and you break it down fast”. When you are sleeping your body is repairing, using glycogen and protein storage to do so. When you wake up it's time to replenish.
Glycogen storages can be replaced with starches and low glycemic carbs (non-sugary carbs), such a sweet potato, whole grain bread, etc. Protein storages can be replaced by eggs, meats, nuts or supplements.
Rule #4 Eliminate processed foods
Processed foods often contain genetically modified ingredients and are loaded with added sugar… or its evil twin, High Fructose Corn Syrup (cue the dramatic music). It is well known that sugar, when consumed in excess, is seriously harmful. Sugar can have devastating effects on metabolism that go way beyond its calorie content.
It can lead to insulin resistance, high triglycerides, increased levels of the harmful cholesterol and increased fat accumulation in the liver and abdominal cavity.
Not surprisingly, refined sugar and HFCS consumption is strongly associated with some of the world’s leading killers… including heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.
Most people aren’t putting massive amounts of sugar in their coffees or on top of their cereal, they’re getting it from processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Most importantly, avoid all processed meats.
The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has just completed a detailed review of more than 7,000 clinical studies covering links between diet and cancer. Consumers should stop buying and eating all processed meat products for the rest of their lives.
Processed meats include bacon, sausage, hot dogs, sandwich meat, packaged ham, pepperoni, salami and virtually all red meat used in frozen prepared meals. They are usually manufactured with a carcinogenic ingredient known as sodium nitrite. This is used as a color fixer by meat companies to turn packaged meats a bright red color so they look fresh. During the process of cooking certain meats, the sodium nitrates combine with naturally present amines in the meat to form carcinogenic and N–nitroso compounds. These compounds lead to a sharp increase in cancer risk for those who eat them- such as a 67% increase in risk of pancreatic cancer and an increase of colorectal cancer by 50%! These are alarming numbers.
Note that these cancer risks do not come from eating fresh, non-processed meats. They only appear in people who regularly consume processed meat products containing sodium nitrite.
Rule #5 Get personal with healthy fats
Good news! You no longer have to worry about fat! Yay! Fats are a crucial part of our diet. We actually need fats -- can't live without them.
They provide essential fatty acids, keep our skin soft, deliver fat-soluble vitamins, and are a great source of energizing fuel. They also lubricate our joints and stoke the fire of our metabolism. Oh and did I mention that they taste yummy?
When eating your fats try to keep them in the earlier part of your day, during breakfast or as your midmorning snack. That way you will burn them for fuel during your most active parts of the day, and not store them as unused fat at night while you sleep.
Last but not least Rule #6 Eat your protein!
Whether you are a vegetarian, vegan, omnivore, or raging carnivore you need to find healthy protein sources.
Protein is the building block of muscle and having healthy strong muscles are so important because they burn fat, help us produce healthy hormones, prevent bone density from the depleting, and provide energy. If you have a very active lifestyle, or are an advanced athlete and find you are re-injuring parts your body over and over again, or have an injury that refuses to repair it is usually a sign that you have a protein deficiency. No injury should last forever. If you're nursing the same tear you've had for years then there's something wrong with your nutrition, and most likely it's your protein. Your body cannot repair the way it needs to without a protein source.
How much protein should you eat? Generally the rule of thumb is you should eat your lean bodyweight in grams of protein. For example, I weigh a hundred and fifteen pounds, probably about 80 pounds of that is lean mass. That means I should be eating at least 80g of protein per day. Now that 80 g of protein will only help me maintain my current muscle, if I want to gain muscle my protein will have to be even more than that. The average person has about 50-70 pounds of lean mass which means the average person person should eat 50-70g of protein a day.
Healthy proteins include organic meats and cheeses, beans, nuts and nut butters, organic tofu, seafood. Organic protein supplement are okay too but can cause uncomfortable abdominal bloating and gas retention. Try taking a yoga class heavy with twists in that condition! And as said earlier, always avoid processed meats and proteins!
So, there they are! My six cardinal rules. Remember, it take a while to implement a healthy lifestyle. Start slowly, setting small goals while trying to not get too hung up on details. Eventually these little lifestyle changes will add up to big change.