“When you feel healthy, energetic, physically attractive, and comfortable with your body, then and only then are you at your ideal weight.”
— Deepak Chopra, Perfect Weight
As part of my sporadic Campaign to Less Fatness, I picked up Perfect Weight by Deepak Chopra. I’ve been looking into Ayurvedic medicine through my herbalism studies, and Dr. Chopra’s Western medical background, in addition to his alternative views, sold me on the read.
Blending the Indian primary healthcare system of Ayurveda with Western medicine, Dr. Chopra outlines methods of weight control and acceptance (rather than weight loss) in Perfect Weight. His main argument is we each have our own “perfect weight” for our individual body, and that trying to fit unrealistic and overly-specific ideals of fitness and health based on popular culture or on clinical definitions are equally unhealthy methods of finding that personal sweet spot where you feel and look good. In his view, “your ideal weight should be a self-referring, worthwhile, attainable goal” – meaning that we must read our own internal cues of comfort and discomfort and account for our personal physical attributes when figuring out what diet and exercise will help us reach our healthy weight goals.
Here’s a decent overview of Ayurveda from the University of Minnesota (of all places) if you’re interested, but I’ll also provide a quick(ish) breakdown of how Chopra explains it:
The human body is not a group of things (molecules, cells, etc.), but a group of processes – functions like eating, breathing, digesting food, burning food for energy, eliminating waste, and thinking/comprehending the universe around us. Ayurveda subscribes to the theory that in order to achieve perfect health, one must seek balance in body, mind, spirit, and connection with others. We must do this on a unique, individual basis because rather than fitting external standards, our well-being depends on self-referral – evaluating our own feelings of comfort and discomfort.
We find balance in our personal system through balancing our three doshas – categories that “govern the flow of intelligence throughout the physiology” and can be likened to the Greek theory of the body’s humors that was practiced until the 1800s. In Ayurveda, the vata dosha represents the element of air and motion, is characterized by dryness and cold, and controls the movement of blood, nerve impulses, thoughts, voice, joints, and muscles. Pitta dosha represents fire, is characterized by acidity and heat, and controls metabolism and digestions. Kapha dosha represents water/earth, is characterized by heavy oiliness and slow movement, and controls the structure of the body, such as bones and connective tissues.
A person’s prakriti, or natural body type, is their dominant combination of these doshas, and their health is adversely affected by strong imbalances in them. What we eat and drink raises or lowers the level of each of our doshas based on the qualities of the food – hot, salty foods aggravate a hot pitta dosha, for example, and can make us irritable and irrational. There are a lot of rules I’m unfamiliar with there, but many of them check out in terms of foods that Western medicine says will cause inflammation or water retention or phlegm production and such, which can make me pretty cranky in turn, so I’m inclined to think the centuries-old Ayurvedic method might also be on to something here.
According to Chopra, in Ayurveda, “every health-related procedure must be evaluated in terms of the constitution of the person using it” and every successful weight loss or maintenance plan, therefore, must be individual and unique in order to work. The meat of the book breaks down the methods of correcting dosha imbalances for each of the three types, with a heavy focus on the kapha dosha, the one with the most connection to excessive weight. He suggests eating only when one is hungry, since that’s when the digestive fire (called agnis) is burning and will convert food to positive energy (ojas) rather than fat/toxins (ama). He also suggests following a daily routine that uses the dominant traits of each dosha to strengthen your efforts – for example, pitta dosha’s time of day is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., then again from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., so Chopra says we should be sure to eat our heaviest, most nourishing meal of the day at noon (during the time when pitta’s fiery metabolic properties can help us digest our food most effectively) and that we should be sure to go to sleep by 10 p.m. (before pitta’s active, heat driven properties give us a second wind and make us stay up far later than is good for us).
In terms of actual weight loss techniques, Chopra, like everyone else, advises eating right and exercising. We are to use his Body Intelligence Techniques to eat mindfully and healthfully, and I will say that nearly all of these techniques very strongly resembled those given in just about any healthy eating/weight loss book I’ve ever gotten my hands on, including the Mayo Clinic Diet, DASH diet, Whole 30, Weight Watchers, and more. One notable difference is that many of the diets I’ve looked at before favor raw foods for their retention of vitamins and ability to keep one full longer, while the Ayurvedic method recommends cooking everything to promote gentler digestion and easier metabolism of the food. As far as exercise advice, Chopra favors light exercise over a long period of time, such as walking or tai-chi, rather than more aerobic methods – exercise that will “produce energy, strength, and vitality, not use them up.” This really appeals strongly to me since I live with chronic pain and the more popular Western forms of high-impact exercise hurt like hell when I do them and sap my energy by making me hurt for days afterward.
Chopra also suggests following a liquefied diet one day a week, as well as using Ayurvedic herbs/spices and practicing Ayurvedic massage, breathing, and yoga therapies daily to cleanse the system of ama/toxins. (This is where I started feeling a little shaky with the theories presented, because every time I see “detox” flash on my screen on Facebook or Pinterest, my Western upbringing makes me want to throw things at the screen and yell, “you have a liver, let it do its damn job!”, but I digress. I do know that there are some promising studies that show how massage really can do wonders to tame fibromyalgic and myofascial pain like I have, so regardless of what they call it, maybe those “newfangled” Ayurvedics are onto something after all.)
The thing I really like about this book over many other weight control books is that it focuses on holistic wellness rather than just how to lose pounds. From the very start, we’re told that food is not the only element to being healthy. Even in an appendix, Chopra gives us a list of other sources of prana (life force) that don’t involve food at all, and nearly all of them suggest contact with nature’s elements – enjoy some sun, recognize the importance of the air we breathe, get down and touch the soil from which our food springs, view a large body of water regularly. Frankly, I would’ve liked even more of this, especially in relation to which elements of nature one can connect with through the lens of one’s dominant doshas, but I suppose that would’ve made this an entirely different book, or at least a less focused one, and I am sure I can find more on that elsewhere.
Chopra’s main tenet is that “effective weight control involves at least two important components: recognizing and eliminating behaviors resulting from imbalances, and acknowledging, accepting, and enjoying what is your true nature.” To me, that means getting the body, mind, and spirit healthy first, then just going with the flow to take your place in the universe – something that dovetails nicely with my spiritual mindset of being inherently connected with nature. In fact, Chopra also says “we are meant to ride nature’s waves, not to fight against them,” so if I’m eating right and moving as well as possible and my body decides it’s happy and healthy at a size 18 and 240 pounds, that’s where we’ll settle.
Perfect Weight is not anywhere close to a comprehensive diet plan or weight loss primer, but it does introduce an interesting and different lens through which to view health and body comfort that I quite like. At a little over 100 pages, it’s well worth the read and could easily supplement a more comprehensive plan like DASH.