Notes from Mitra: On December 28th, 2011, The New York Times Magazine ran an article, “The Fat Trap”, which discusses why lost pounds generally get found again. It highlights one couple in particular; a pair who, in their sixties, each lost well-over 100 pounds, and have kept it off through meticulous weighing of food, planning of meals, recording every bite they eat, and exercising each day. Good for them, by the way. They have made massive changes to their lifestyle, which is incredibly impressive. Not only that, it has potentially added many years to this couple’s lives. They are committed to eating whole foods, are growing much of their own produce, and spend time outdoors each day.
But while I was struck by how hard this couple is working to maintain their weight loss, I was more alarmed by the tone of the article, and the author’s assertion that a great deal of research continues to confirm that some people are predisposed toward obesity. She recounts her own struggles (she estimates that she’s about 60 pounds overweight), and highlights study after study showing how some people lose more than others who follow an identical diet and exercise plan; how some children seem far more inclined to eat fatty and high calorie foods because of a gene that they possess; how thousands of people worldwide have lost weight and kept it off by near fanatical attention to what they’re eating and how they exercise. Of course, there’s not much discussion of the fact that obesity rates have skyrocketed in recent decades as our food has become more highly processed, and portions have grown.
There’s much to say about all of this, but my readers will likely be able to predict what my advice would be: follow a plant-based, whole-food diet with no added oils, get some moderate exercise with fresh air, and see what happens to your body.
I realize that this seems like oversimplification. Of course there are people out there who have a harder time losing weight than others. Of course many vegetarians and vegans have health problems (because you can be a vegan and still eat unhealthy food). And of course lots of people see fabulous changes when they switch from their standard American diet to a Paleo-style diet full of lean meats, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. While I don’t endorse such a diet, it’s clear that this type of eating is an improvement over the processed food that most people eat.
And yet I want to see how all of these people would fare if they really and truly committed to a plant-based, whole-food diet for a period of three to four months (minimum). I’ve seen the research to support the amazing health benefits of a plant-based diet, and have read endless accounts of people who lost large amounts of weight, reversed heart disease and diabetes, and keep their weight off without struggle. And I’ve measured the changes for my retreat participants, but I haven’t conducted a personal experiment by watching it happen up-close-and-personal with a family member over an extended period of time. I’d really like to see what happens once the weight is off, and what it takes to maintain a healthy weight — the Times Magazine article asserts that it’s almost impossible.
So I decided to do just that. I approached my sister-in-law (and Dr. Mitra Ray staffer), Kelly, who is about 40 pounds overweight. While losing 40 pounds is not the same as losing over 100, it’s a substantial amount. Kelly agreed to follow my guidelines for 4 months, and to keep a journal as she detoxes, loses weight, and regains health.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that such an endeavor isn’t without hard work and dedication. I myself love all vegetables, but I know that many people are addicted to sugar and fat, and that their taste buds will literally change as they become accustomed to, and eventually learn to love, plants. And because they are nothing less than addicted, they will undergo withdrawal and detoxification, which can include headaches, flu-like symptoms, intense cravings, etc. Some of these symptoms may be brief, and others will last longer. But the long-term benefits far outweigh the temporary discomfort.
Here is Kelly’s account of her first month:
Currently, I’m 41 years old and 40 pounds overweight. I’m basing this number on my college weight, when I was reasonably fit, walking briskly several miles a day, lugging a backpack full of books up and down hills. I did not, however, work out or play any sports.
I work for my sister-in-law, Dr. Mitra Ray. For any number of reasons that you can imagine, it’s pretty ridiculous to be on Mitra’s staff and be so unhealthy.
There are healthy aspects to my life, of course. For all that I love junk food, I also eat good food every day. My husband Dipankar (Mitra’s brother) loves to cook, and he regularly makes super-healthy Indian food. He and I are both fans of Mitra’s favorite Green Drink, and I cook plenty of plant-based meals at home. But while I’m busy shuttling my kids around, I’m largely sedentary myself. And then there’s the junk food. Here is a list of my favorites, which, until this month, were more-or-less on the menu weekly:
- Cheeseburgers and French fries
- Coke: full throttle, with high fructose corn syrup
- Italian hoagie-style sandwiches
- Burritos with chicken or pork, sour cream, cheese, chips on-the-side, etc.
- Ice cream
I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
When Mitra approached me right before New Year’s and suggested that I follow her detox-and-lifestyle guidelines and blog about my experience, I agreed to give the Dr. Ray program a shot. And not just a shot: to commit to do it for 120 days (January through April) and see how I felt.
My plan is to start a whole new lifestyle. I have lost weight in the past, and always gained it back. My intention on this 120-day-plan is to pretty much eat and exercise in a manner that I can maintain forever. Am I saying I’ll never have another cheeseburger? I don’t know. But I am saying that I can’t have one weekly, or even monthly. I know enough about what that food does to my body to recognize that I don’t want to eat it. But I make the wrong food choices every day because I’m tired and rushed, and because it’s truly an addiction. I get cranky and irritable and HAVE TO HAVE a soda and some greasy, salty, fatty food.
Mitra has lots to say about how to achieve and maintain optimal health and the right weight for your body, but here are the basic tenets:
1. Eat a plant-based, whole-food diet. The deal is to get fewer than 10% of my calories from animal products. That’s not 10% of my meals — 10% of my calories. For me, there’s a slippery slope with such things, so I’m planning to eat no animal products for 120 days. After that, we’ll see if I want to add some back in, or if I choose to maintain an all plant-based, whole-food diet.
2. Drink lots of water. I already do this, so no change there.
3. Exercise enough to get some fresh air and get my blood pumping, but don’t focus on intense exercise. Restorative yoga and walks outside are what Mitra recommends in the beginning.
4. Take Juice Plus+®. Also nothing new.
5. Eat mainly whole foods. This is implicit in #1, but bears restating. What’s crucial about this is that it’s not enough to call oneself a vegan, or vegetarian. Many of my favorite foods (French fries, coke, Red Vines, etc.) are vegetarian.
6. Use little-to-no added oils or fat. Dietary fat can come from nuts, seeds, and avocadoes.
7. Get enough sleep. This one is going to be hard for me. With a two-year-old whose sleep is still dicey, I can all but guarantee that I’m not going to get the 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep that Mitra recommends.
8. Perform a daily enema for the first 30 days of my program, then ongoing as needed afterward. Honestly, this one freaks me out a bit… not so sure about giving myself an enema every day, but I’m willing to try it once or twice and see how it goes. (Note from Mitra: check out my Q and A this month on the hows-and-whys of enemas)
9) For detoxification (and weight loss as well) eat all meals between 9:00am and 4:00pm.
Day 2: Yesterday was fine. Had a Green Drink for breakfast, veggie tacos with salsa and guacamole for lunch, a big bag of raw vegetables (carrots, peppers, red cabbage, etc.) mid-afternoon, and some butternut squash soup and whole-grain bread for dinner. Today is harder. I’m starting to get what I’m certain is a caffeine headache… I typically have a large Coke most days, and at least one cup of black tea, so I’m feeling a bit logy and uncomfortable today without it.
Day 4: I feel like crap. I’m tired, I want a Coke really badly, I feel blech all over. Mitra says it’s detox. Whatever it is, I feel like I’m coming down with the flu. I’ve been eating whenever I’m hungry, but none of the allowable foods are appealing to me right now. I do not want another Green Drink. I really don’t want any steamed, roasted, or curried vegetables. I don’t want any oatmeal. I want a burger. Or pepperoni pizza.
Day 6: More of the same. I’m not actually hungry, but I think about food all of the time. I haven’t started with the enemas. I just can’t bring myself to do it. And the other thing I’m doing is eating well outside the suggested hours of 9am – 5pm. Dinner has typically been closer to 7:30 most nights.
Day 7: weighed myself today – 4 pounds lost in my first week! This is with no enemas, and eating well past 5pm. Talked to Mitra this afternoon and she convinced me to try the enema. It’s not painful (she claims!), and quite gentle, as it’s only warm water, and goes very slowly. Okay. Fine. Tonight’s the night.
I asked Mitra when I would stop craving my favorite foods and she said about 30 days for sugar, and 90 days for fat and salt!!! (She’s not saying that I can’t salt my food – she’s referring to the processed salty foods that I was previously eating daily). She also said that there are stages of detox that I’ll go through, and that it may take a while, which explains why, a week and a half after starting, I am not feeling filled with energy and vitality. I feel sort of sick, and a little bit tired, all of the time.
I have not yet been tempted to cheat, mainly because I said I’d do this for 120 days, and I want to see what will really happen if I stick to it. That said, I am craving fatty and sugary foods All. Day. Long.
Finally did my first enema. No big deal at all, though it did feel odd the first time I did it. The main challenge is finding the twenty-to-thirty minutes it takes each night to do it. I am so exhausted by the end of the day that all I want to do is go to bed. So the struggle going forward is going to be to make it a priority.
Weight loss in week 2: 3 pounds.
Nothing exciting to report. I’ve gotten more creative with food this week, trying a few new recipes because I’m really tired of the same old stuff. My favorite cookbooks right now are The Mediterranean Vegan Kitchen, and Feeding the Whole Family. I’m loving this rice salad (from Feeding the Whole Family) with kidney beans, dill, and red onion. I add a little steamed kale for some green power, and I like it salty!
I’ve increased my exercise this week so that I’m doing about 50 minutes each day. I’ve also increased the intensity. This isn’t something that Mitra has told me to do, but I want to see if additional exercise speeds up the weight loss. During the first week, I was waking up half an hour before my kids and doing a few minutes of yoga, but that has also fallen by the wayside. I’ve done it once or twice a week since then, but never first thing in the morning.
I’m enjoying some of my new recipes far more than I expected, but my cravings have gotten stronger this week. For the past three days, I’ve been fiercely craving meat and cheese. I used to go to Noah’s Bagels and get a turkey sandwich on a sesame bagel, with jalapeno-salsa cream cheese, tomatoes, and red onions. And a large Coke. I could cheerfully kill for those right about now.
Instead, I made myself a green drink for dinner. I made it with extra flax seeds, and a ton of kale and spinach. I also put half a banana, some frozen mango, and frozen blueberries in.
I’d like to say that after drinking my green drink, my body feels healthy and full, and I’m no longer craving the turkey sandwich. It would be a lie. I had to work to finish the green drink. And I still want a turkey sandwich.
I know exactly what Mitra would tell me: smokers who quit still crave cigarettes for a long time. The answer for them is not to have just a few cigarettes, or an occasional cigarette. The answer for them is to power through to the other side.
Weight loss in week 3: half a pound! What the heck?
Last week was tough; I felt like I was eating right (though still eating well past 5pm), and I only lost half a pound. Still, that’s progress, and I’m feeling better every day. Each night I make sure that I more-or-less know what I’m eating the next day, so that I’m not ever starving and scrambling, which is when I know I’d be prone to make poor choices.
No enemas or exercise this whole week. Work and personal life have been hectic, and the kids and I were all sick for a few days with a nasty head cold, so I’ve been in survival mode.
And I’ve been making sure to eat when I’m truly hungry. I try to wait until I feel actual hunger (which I don’t think I’ve experienced in years), rather than base my mealtimes on the clock. But when I’m actually hungry, I definitely eat. This week I’ve eaten more nuts and avocadoes than the first three weeks. I only eat a handful of raw nuts at a time, though – it’s easy for me to overdo it and eat way too many just because I want the experience of munching on something.
Overall, I’m feeling much better. I think that I’ve passed through an initial stage of detox, though Mitra says there’s more to come down the road. For now, I have more energy, and my sleep seems better. I wake up less at night, and I’m far more refreshed in the morning. Whoo-hoo.
Weight loss in week four: 5.5 pounds
Total weight loss in one month: 13 pounds
Coming in March: my cravings go away! And I’m fitting into clothes I haven’t worn in five years!