Q: Is it true that there has been a sharp increase in the incidence of obesity in the United States?
PVH: Yes. Between 1960 and 1980, obesity rates in the United States doubled. Today 68% percent of Americans are overweight; that includes 34% who are obese, which is a more serious form of overweight. Nearly one in five children and adolescents are obese. Since 2010, America and Mexico have been vying for the dubious distinction of having the fattest people on the planet.
Q: What do you see as the main causes of the rise in obesity?
PVH: There are multiple factors. One is the increase in inexpensive, calorie-dense, unhealthy foods that are heavily advertised. It’s possible to order many of these foods by phone and have them delivered to the home or office. Studies show that Americans don’t like to spend time preparing food. Given a fast option that’s also inexpensive, they will often choose it even though it isn’t healthy. Once people get used to eating those kinds of foods, their taste buds adjust and they begin to prefer them.
The second factor is that the cost of healthier foods has gone up, especially fruits and vegetables. It’s been shown that even when money is not a major issue for people, they will often choose these unhealthy foods because they are cheaper and more convenient.
Q: Do you agree that stress is a factor in the dramatic rise of obesity?
PVH: Yes. Stress contributes to obesity in its effects on hormones that affect appetite and obesity. The main one is cortisone, or cortisol. If people are stressed most of the time, they tend to have higher levels of blood cortisone, which in some people contributes to obesity.
Q: What are some of the non-medical societal consequences of obesity?
PVH: There’s an element of stigma associated with obesity. The fatter people are, the more difficulties they encounter in certain areas of life: finding suitable employment, qualifying for job promotions, making a sale, finding a mate, having friends who enjoy spending time with them and being seen with them. Some airlines now require that people above a certain weight or size purchase two seats. For one person I know, having to pay for two seats doubled the cost of an already expensive flight.
Q: Why is obesity such a difficult disorder to control medically?
PVH: The studies on obesity treatment show that the vast majority of people who are 50–80 pounds overweight will never lose the weight. That’s how discouraging the statistics are.
Q: Does a spiritual perspective on life offer any understanding of obesity and how to address it?
PVH: Yes, it does. For some people, food is the only thing in life they can afford that offers any fulfillment. Since they can’t afford more expensive outward things, they turn to food for that sense of fulfillment, and they do it to excess.
People who are sincerely on the spiritual path are not looking for happiness outside themselves; they are looking inward to satisfy their need for happiness and fulfillment. This inward focus especially characterizes those whose path includes meditation as one of the primary practices. Regular meditation imparts a deepening sense of peace, calmness, and joy which spills over into daily life. Meditators are usually happy people.
Even apart from the fulfillment it imparts, meditation also tends to moderate a person’s desire to eat. Most people who meditate regularly tend to have a lower and more balanced appetite. It is also very difficult to meditate deeply when the stomach is overloaded with food.
Q: People associated with Ananda follow the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, author of the spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi. Do his teachings on diet offer any guidance relevant to the challenges of obesity?
PVH: Yes, they do. Following Yogananda’s teachings on diet means gradually eliminating from one’s diet overly processed foods and focusing more on foods that are naturally produced. Yogananda said that Americans eat too much protein. He recommended milk and nuts as healthy proteins, but not in overly large amounts.
Overall, it’s much easier to understand the importance of Yogananda’s dietary recommendations now that we understand their effects on the microbiome, the healthy bacteria in the colon, which thrive when one’s diet includes plenty of fiber, fruits, vegetables, and water that’s not highly chlorinated. To promote microbiome health, I also usually recommend a quart and a half of water a day. Another thing I often suggest is taking a probiotic each day and emphasizing fermented foods, the natural probiotics.
To combat obesity, medicine is now encouraging people to have a healthier microbiome. For the microbiome* has a huge impact on how we handle calories. When it grows healthier, people’s overall physical functioning improves, as does their choice of foods. Often their energy level is higher and they become much more interested in exercising and being active.
Q: People writing about obesity suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful in overcoming eating habits that contribute to obesity. Do Paramhansa Yogananda’s teachings offer any guidance here?
PVH: If we take Yogananda’s teachings and try to fit them into an established discipline, the result would be a combination of aspirational psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy. Both disciplines involve changing one’s thought patterns and behavior. Overcoming obesity requires that a person do both things.
Q: Paramhansa Yogananda saw spiritual cooperative communities, like Ananda, as models for living in this new age of Dwapara Yuga,** which began in 1900. Does living in one of the Ananda communities open up possibilities for dealing with obesity that are not generally available to the population at large?
PVH: Yes it does. In cooperative spiritual communities we try to work together and be supportive of one another. Knowing that any of us could have a health or an economic challenge at any time, we’re committed to helping each other, not just ourselves.
The size of the community is also a factor. We live in communities where it’s possible to know most people. We might not meet a new person for six months or a year, but eventually we get to know them, at least to some extent. Anybody we bring into our community is part of our family, and of course we want to help them if we can. At the same time, in a community based on spiritual principles, there’s much less of a tendency to feel helpless or that we don’t have very much control. There’s much more of a sense that it’s up to us to take charge of our lives.
Q: Are there any other aspects of living in this higher age of Dwapara Yuga that make it easier to bring obesity and the problems it creates under control?
PVH: Yes. Information is much more widely disseminated. Once it becomes common knowledge that an activity or practice is unhealthy, people tend not to do it. Today, for example, there’s a much greater understanding that alcohol use is unhealthy than there was a hundred years ago. As a result, except for younger people who may be experimenting, alcohol use has gone down significantly.
Q: How is the obesity epidemic related to the transition into Dwapara Yuga?
PVH: A characteristic of Dwapara Yuga is that society as a whole is becoming much more efficient—much more energy efficient, much more time efficient. Machines and electrical power have replaced many forms of manual labor.
During the lower age of Kali Yuga, which ended in 1800, very few people, apart from the wealthy, had what we would consider free time. If they weren’t at their jobs, they were home doing some other kind of work.
If you go back 150 years, many people were farmers. Even if they weren’t farmers, they might grow some of their own vegetables or have a chicken in the backyard, things like that. Today, people don’t have to grow their own food in order to have enough to eat. Very few of us raise any food ourselves, which is much more efficient, but one of the unfortunate consequences is that many of us eat much worse.
Q: Do you envision any new treatment options for obesity as society enters more fully into Dwapara Yuga?
PVH: I think our treatment options for obesity will harmonize better with good, healthy eating habits. There will be a clearer understanding of obesity as an illness to be addressed when the first signs appear instead of waiting until people become seriously overweight. If people seek help when they are only fifteen or twenty pounds overweight, we can help them. Anybody can lose twenty pounds, but a person who is eighty or more pounds overweight has at best a one in two hundred chance of losing weight.
One weight-loss specialist whose articles I follow pointed out how very simple changes in a school setting can have a dramatic impact on weight loss. I mentioned earlier that childhood obesity has increased significantly. This expert describes how installing standard water coolers in certain schools led to a reduction in obesity among the students. The schools involved in this experiment installed water coolers with generous cups throughout their buildings, and encouraged the students to drink as much as they wanted. The results were impressive: there was a significant weight loss among the students in these schools compared to other schools that did not add water coolers.
Q: Why would drinking more water cause weight loss?
PVH: People often tend to confuse thirst with hunger, and if their only option to drink is a sugary drink, they will drink it even though it’s not the healthiest choice. This is especially true of school children.
Q: I assume that many overweight adults confuse thirst with hunger. Would drinking more water help them as well?
Q: We know that exercise plays a role in weight loss. How important is it compared to one’s diet?
PVH: There’s a synergistic effect if you do the two together. Even brisk walking for half an hour a day, as Paramhansa Yogananda recommended, increases your calorie burning for hours and hours afterwards. Also, the more physically fit you are, the more active you tend to be normally. You choose leisure activities which are not sedentary.
Q: Are you optimistic about the future?
PVH: Yes. Three-fourths of all health care spending in the United States is attributable to obesity. The country’s disability program is greatly oversubscribed due to obesity-related health problems.
But just as happened with alcohol, people are becoming increasingly aware of obesity’s overall harmful effects on health.
* To learn more about the impact of the microbiome on overall health, see, “The Human Microbiome and Its Importance to Your Health,” an interview with Dr. Peter Van Houten, Clarity Magazine, February 2015.
** In The Holy Science, Swami Sri Yukteswar writes that in 1900, the world entered a new age called Dwapara Yuga, defined by heightened awareness of energy as the underlying reality of the material universe. For an in-depth discussion of Dwapara Yuga, see Religion in the New Age, by Swami Kriyananda, Crystal Clarity Publishers.
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Peter Van Houten, MD, lives at Ananda Village and is the founder and Medical Director of Sierra Family Medical Clinic near Ananda Village. He frequently writes and lectures on the brain and other “yoga and science” topics.