Chapter 20: Healthy Eating Patterns

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Michael Pollan (1955)

If a pack of wolves kills a deer, the leader gets the choice cuts before the pack shares the rest in an egalitarian way. They eat until the entire deer is gone because they don’t know when there will be another. Likewise, for much of our hunter-gatherer past, food was not guaranteed. Thus, when we encountered a glut, we would gorge ourselves. There was no benefit to limiting food intake because an excess of stored calories was necessary to survive periods of famine.1 The constant hunger drive was a survival mechanism. The same goes for our drive to minimize energy expenditure. The less movement you made, the more calories you conserved. This is why today, some of us have the inclination to be insatiable couch potatoes. In our modern world, these adaptive traits are no longer beneficial. Instead, they have made us susceptible to obesity and related ailments including diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.2
Rats with a perpetually full food dish that are allowed to self-regulate their own food intake become rotund. They eat as much as they want, engaging in “hedonic hyperphagia.” This is food intake motivated by pleasure and independent of hunger. Overfeeding in this way causes them to suffer from metabolic diseases and cancers.3 These rats die much younger than rats fed appropriate portions. You and I are domestic mammals that are allowed to feed ourselves ad libitum. World obesity statistics demonstrate that humans are not doing so well given these liberties.4 Unlike rats, we can self-impose limitations on our eating. This can be difficult, but we need to do so if we want to stay healthy. Of course, it is not only how much we eat but also what we eat that makes a difference.
Sometimes an evolved mechanism becomes a liability once certain features of the environment change.5 For instance, many animals eat brightly colored trash because their visual perception of it excites appetitive circuits in their brains. Animals regularly die from such misplaced instincts, and, due to the modern food industry, so do we. Favoring sweet, salty, fatty foods was necessary for the survival of prehistoric humans. Hence, our taste receptors make us crave sugar, sodium, and fat. Given the glut of hyperpalatable food options today, this adaptation has backfired.6
Our bodies produce feel-good chemicals when we consume tasty food and when our stomachs are full. These chemicals reduce bodily pain, stress hormones, and the activation of the fight or flight system. The transient alleviation of stress influences us to adopt unhealthy eating habits. On the other hand, trying to force ourselves to eat less and eat healthy can promote stress. In this chapter, we will discuss some effective solutions for how you can keep weight off without contributing to stress.

Calorie and Nutrient Density

Worthless people live only to eat and drink; people of worth eat and drink only to live. Socrates (470 BCE -399 BCE)

Scientists estimate that 50% of the pets in the U.S. are overweight. Even a little extra weight in our pets reduces their health, lifespan, mobility, and playtime. My cat Niko used to be overweight. Feeding him less wasn’t working. He would just cry in desperation until I gave him more food. The solution was feeding him the least caloric cat food on the market. Now, he still eats the same volume of food, so he is just as satisfied. However, because his food has less fat and fewer calories, he is now slim. This solution works just as well for you and me.

Energy density is the number of calories (energy) in a given amount (volume) of food. It is often measured in calories per cup. Most of us eat lots of heavily processed and refined food, which are very energy dense. The problem is, if you fill your stomach with it, you will have far exceeded your healthy calorie limit. Now, if you eat proportionately less of it, you will still be hungry. The solution is to eat decent-sized portions of less calorie-dense food.7 Foods that are low in calorie density but high in nutrient density include fruit and vegetables, lean meat, fat-free dairy, and whole grains. Consider, for instance, that a large 18-gram strawberry has six calories, but a small 18-gram chocolate chip cookie has 90 calories.

Studies show that people tend to eat about the same overall weight of food everyday regardless of the number of calories it contains. This means that adding low calorie density foods to your meals will allow you to feel perfectly full on fewer calories. Additionally, because they are less addictive than food containing additives like soda, chips, fast food, and candy, you are less likely to overeat.
Most mammals will eat more when palatable food is readily available. Hyperpalatable food is rare in the wild but is commonly eaten by domestic animals. For instance, mice and rats have a strong preference for potato chips over their standard foods. Like us, their pleasure system drives them to make unhealthy choices. And, if they are allowed to live on potato chips, they will consume a larger volume of food. The “tastier” the food you keep in your fridge and pantry, the more you will be tempted to gorge yourself on it.
If you can convince yourself to buy less palatable and more nutrient dense food, you will naturally be less likely to overeat. You may even find that you have no interest in continuing to eat bland food on a full stomach. This will ensure that you eat to reduce hunger rather than maximize pleasure. Start with your morning routine. If you can eat a low-fat, low-sugar, high-fiber cereal, you will be off to a great start. Consider adding some fruit to reward yourself and increase the volume of what you’re eating. Fruits and vegetables are the ultimate choices for low-calorie density but high nutrient density.
Keep telling yourself, “If I’m not hungry enough to eat healthily, I must not really be that hungry.” Eating bland, healthy food sounds like a chore, but the good news is that you get used to it. My cat didn’t like the diet cat food at first, but within a month, he preferred it. You should similarly find yourself developing a preference for healthy food after intentionally exposing yourself to it. The more fruit and vegetables you eat, the more you’ll know which ones you like, and in which combinations. After a while the prospect of your favorites will make you salivate. When I eat fruit or vegetables, I often pretend that I just found, dug up, or picked them myself. This makes me savor the taste even more. After eating healthy for a while, many people find going back to junk food to be revolting. I did.

Getting Full on Fruit and Vegetables Will Trick Your Body into Liking Them

The exercise above will help you learn to crave nutritious fruit and vegetables. The first few times, you might feel queasy or nauseous, but this will pass. You may notice changes after a single meal, or it may take several sessions, but you will find that simply getting full on healthy food is a fail-safe way to trick your body into trusting and enjoying it. This will set you on a path toward following the USDA’s evidence-based recommendation to make half of each meal fruits and vegetables.8 This is, in my opinion, by far the best recommendation offered by nutritional science today.
Do you know that piercing hunger that drives you to eat things that are unhealthy? Instead of addressing it with fast food, eradicate it with fruit and vegetables. Snack on grapes, nuts, pears, peaches, seeds, dried fruit, and sugar-free trail mix. Dip broccoli, celery, cucumber slices, snow peas, green beans, and carrots in hummus. Cut raw tomatoes, avocados, tangerines or mangos into your meals. Cook legumes, corn, onion, garlic, cherries, mushrooms, or chilies in with your rice or pasta. Place dried cranberries, olives, spinach, sundried tomatoes, figs, and apple slices in your sandwiches. Add blueberries, melons, plums, mangos, guavas, and papayas to your breakfast. Use asparagus, sweet potatoes, beets, cauliflower, and eggplant as sides to your entrees. When you feel like grazing, graze on nature’s superfoods, and after a while, you may be surprised to find how they can better gratify your hunger.

Illustration 20.1: Make half of each meal fruits and vegetables.

Eating plants is more convenient than you might think. If the grocery store near you has a salad bar, skip the lettuce, and fill your bowl with precut fruit, vegetables, lean meats, and low-calorie dressing. Most grocery stores, convenience stores, and big-box retailers carry fresh-cut fruit and vegetables to go. Consider taking advantage of this. If you want to save money and eat inexpensively, you can cut them yourself. Eating several servings of fruit and vegetables daily will help you to get lean fast and get all the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber you need.

Make a Smoothie Every Day

Preparing fruit and vegetables yourself can be time-consuming. Cutting them into bite-sized portions, and then chewing them takes time. However, because fruit and vegetables turn to liquid in a blender, you can drink large quantities in seconds. Smoothies, shakes, and liquid meals are much easier for your gut to process and decrease the physical effort of digestion, which some scientists believe may prolong lifespan. Also, the bioavailability of liquid meals is higher, meaning your body absorbs more nutrients. Furthermore, blending fruit and vegetables does not reduce their fiber or vitamin content.
With your fruit smoothies, try adding dates, yogurt, almond milk, cashews, walnuts, vanilla extract, honey, and ripe frozen bananas. With your vegetable smoothies, try tomato juice, cayenne pepper, chili flakes, lemon, lime, onion, or garlic. A daily fruit or vegetable smoothie is an easy, cheap, filling, and extremely healthy meal.

Get Your Essential Vitamins and Nutrients

A diet lacking in certain vitamins can contribute to depression and anxiety. Folic acid, iron, omega-3, vitamin B12, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin D, selenium, and zinc are all essential.9 Deficiencies in these can result in fatigue, irritability, apathy, poor concentration, aggressiveness, mood swings, and increased depressive symptoms.10 This is another reason why it’s imperative to eat more of those fruits and vegetables.

Cut out Saturated Fats

Try not to eat any fats that are solid at room temperature. These are saturated fats, and consuming them leads to high cholesterol, clogged arteries, atherosclerosis, and heart disease. Much of the saturated fats we ingest come from just a few culprits. You should seriously consider minimizing pure animal fat, processed meat, poultry skin, whole milk, heavy cream, high-fat cheese, sour cream, lard, butter, margarine, ghee, tropical oils, and mayonnaise in your diet. Avoid full-fat dairy and go for the fat-free variety. Cut the white or clear fat off your meat and stay away from fried food. Altogether avoid hydrogenated or trans fats. Unlike saturated fats, unsaturated fats are essential, so make an effort to eat fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils (e.g., canola, olive, flaxseed, soybean, etc.).

The Paleo Diet Works

The Paleolithic diet promotes the consumption of food that our hunting and gathering ancestors would have eaten. It is rational to eat what our bodies naturally expect and have eaten for millions of years. The paleo diet advises that we eat whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, fish, and grass-fed meats. It also discourages processed foods and added sugar and salt. These recommendations are entirely in line with modern nutritional science, and the paleo diet has been shown to have significant health benefits in controlled trials.11 However, there are two valid criticisms of the paleo diet. First, the diet restricts some nutrient-dense food such as fat-free dairy and whole grains, which need not be restricted. Second, the high meat intake may lead to health problems if the meat is not lean. Besides these two issues, asking yourself, “Would my ancestors have eaten this?” can be a practical question to help you avoid detrimental foods.

Drink More Water

Many beverages are extraordinarily caloric. Simply cutting soft drinks from your diet can be highly beneficial. Even juice has a lot of calories but no fiber, so despite being calorie dense, it doesn’t do much to make you feel full. This is why if you are not drinking smoothies, you should be drinking plain, purified water. Dieticians commonly point out that water is absolutely free of calories and can contribute to feeling full, so let’s drink up.
Many people don’t get enough water, leaving them with mild symptoms of chronic dehydration. Dehydration is physiologically detrimental and contributes to a lack of energy, discomfort, and the muscular dysfunctions discussed in previous chapters. Try to drink between five and eight 8-ounce glasses (up to 2 liters) of water per day.12 Never drink less than your thirst dictates.

Detraumatize Your Ability to Chug Water

I used to frequently choke when drinking. This was because my swallowing reflex had become uncoordinated due to hyperventilation. Drinking fast felt perilous, and chugging felt like being waterboarded. Swallowing involves the temporary closure of the epiglottis to keep food and drink out of the lungs. If not synchronized correctly, then the liquid is inhaled into the lungs (pulmonary aspiration). This was happening to me daily. Difficulty swallowing is known as dysphagia; everybody has a little bit of it, and you want to minimize your bit. Use the exercise below so that you drink mightily with no unnecessary encumbrances.

Practicing this exercise twice per day for two weeks should be enough to ensure you have no problem chugging four large glasses of water in 20 seconds. You will be able to put away a bottle of water or a smoothie in a very short time. More importantly, you will never again be afraid of choking on water.

We Overeat to Combat Stress

“It is the nature of the wise to resist pleasures, but the foolish to be a slave to them.” ― Epictetus (c. 50-135)

We eat unhealthy food for pleasure but also to quell our pain. As discussed earlier, the taste of fat, salt, and sugar and even the activation of our stomach’s stretch receptors stimulate the release of endorphins, dopamine, and other feel-good neurotransmitters. Conversely, dieting can increase stress hormones, startling, breathing rate and heart rate. Discomfort from skipping a meal can deplete serotonin, reducing the frontal lobes’ ability to regulate the amygdala, resulting in increased anxiety and frustration. In turn, heightened stress makes us hungrier and drives us to keep eating even after we are full.

As you know, eating a meal makes the parasympathetic nervous system kick in. And eating a larger meal emphasizes rest and digest even more. Unconsciously, we know this, and we overeat to subdue the fight or flight mode. Thus, we overeat to turn the volume down on our bodily pain. Many of us eat to the point where we feel tired and slightly nauseous just to reduce our daily stress.

We also eat compulsively because we perceive food binges as mitigating distressed breathing. Hunger indeed makes our breath shallow. Trying to abstain from a piece of cake does the same. That is why it is often preferable to just give in and eat the cake. However, as you will see if you try it, taking deep, slow breaths every time you feel tempted can make you impervious to the siren song.

Combining Fasting with Diaphragmatic Breathing Reduces Your Hunger Drive

Our prehistoric ancestors would not have experienced undue stress the way we do from missing just one meal. Our bodies were designed to go for days without eating. Most people can live longer than a month without food as long as they have access to water. However, we have spoiled our appetitive systems. Every time we are a little late for a meal, our breath becomes shallow and disturbed. Simply, we haven’t learned to retain coolheadedness while hungry. I believe that many fasting practices recognize this. However, I think fasting can be much more beneficial if intentionally combined with diaphragmatic breathing.
Try skipping a meal and breathing through the discomfort using paced breathing. Focus on how hunger affects your breathing and internal bracing. However, be prudent about this. Don’t skip a meal in the middle of a hectic workday, as this will further traumatize your relationship with hunger. Make it a lunch on a weekend so you can pay attention to how it makes you feel without worrying about distractions. When I fast, I just relax, especially for the three or four hours when I am at my hungriest. When you fast, you will notice recurring pangs of hunger starting a few hours after your regular mealtime. Thoracic breathing fuels these hunger pangs. All your life until now, you have paired hunger with distressed breathing. Dissociate these by using paced breathing to override hunger’s ability to highjack your stress system.

Pairing diaphragmatic breathing with hunger will dramatically soothe your hunger drive. The experience afforded by the exercise above will help you differentiate between a neurotic impulse to eat and the body’s valid hunger signal. Resolve to eat only when you feel this honest signal emanating from your gut.
By eating less, you may be prolonging your life. Studies show that modest calorie restriction increases health and longevity in all mammals that have been tested. Temporary calorie deficits cause your cells to break down some of their internal building blocks for energy in a process known as autophagy. Many of these molecular structures were damaged and dysfunctional before they were broken down. The next time you eat, the cells then turn around and rebuild these structures back up correctly, resulting in healthier cells.13 The fact that our cells regenerate in response to calorie restriction is another justification for why we should learn to tolerate hunger. However, keep in mind that these health benefits do not outweigh the costs associated with anorexia or bulimia.

Shrink Your Appetite by Eating Less

Neuroscientists know that exercising restraint is much like exercising a muscle. Every time you abstain or show moderation when eating, it gets easier to do so in the future.14[i] Conversely, every time you binge, you will want to eat more the next few meals. Thus, the next time you flex your willpower by eating smaller portions or healthier food, take some consolation in knowing that your willpower is growing.
It can take up to 20 minutes for the satisfaction signal to reach the brain. This is unfortunate because it means that we are liable to eat 20 minutes’ worth of food that we don’t need and within just a few short minutes, will not want. Learn to stop eating early and anticipate satisfaction before it arrives. One way to accomplish this is to stop eating once you reach 80% of being full. It can also help to make a concerted effort to eat less while enjoying your food more.
I used to get stressed if a meal was not large enough to make me very full. Now, I find the sensation of being stuffed repulsive because I get tired after eating a heavy meal. Overeating promotes lethargy, making both exercise and concentration more difficult. This phenomenon is called “postprandial somnolence.” It can lead to sleepiness and a significant drop in mental acuity around lunchtime.15 Avoid this in the middle of the day by splitting your lunch in half. Eat one half at noon and the second 30 minutes to an hour later. Eating frequent, smaller meals may help you stay alert and keep your metabolism high.

Dormant Muscle Increases Body Fat

Modern medical experts know that the current worldwide epidemic of obesity and diabetes is attributable to unhealthy eating and insufficient exercise, but they don’t appreciate the role of dormant muscle. I believe that the extent of dormant muscle is a major determinant of metabolic rate. It is pretty clear how dormant muscles cause an involuntary loss of lean mass and a progressive increase in fat mass. When parts of your neck, shoulders, spine, and hips are frozen in place, your movement is impeded. When your lower back hurts, your stomach is flaccid, and your range of lumbar motion is compromised, every action is attenuated. For these reasons, I firmly believe that performing the dormancy-reducing anti-rigidity exercises from previous chapters will increase your will-to-move and your metabolism along with it.
Increasing age is associated with decreasing metabolic rate. I believe this relationship is mediated by frailty and that anti-rigidity may allow one to maintain a more active life well into old age. Frailty is the main reason that you have lower energy now as opposed to when you were younger. Thus, anti-rigidity may be the best weight loss tool available. When I was 28, I moved like a grandfather. I also had a “skinny-fat” physique and had to eat small portions to avoid being overweight. Dormant muscle strongly influenced me to be sedentary. Not anymore.
There are two primary reasons for the variability in metabolic rate between individuals. One is the difference in lean body mass. A person with more muscle will have a higher metabolism. The second is voluntary movement not accounted for by exercise, called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). NEAT is spontaneous physical activity and is highly variable across individuals, including how you move and hold your body during work, leisure, household tasks, and ambulation. NEAT can vary by as much as 2,000 calories per day between two people. The notion that obesity and overweight may be more related to NEAT than diet and exercise is supported by studies.16 I strongly believe that reclaiming atrophic and hypertonic musculature using anti-laxity and anti-rigidity is a surefire way to increase lean body mass and NEAT. Getting the dormant kinks out of the back and filling in the missing corners in the abdomen by using the exercises in the next section will shred away one’s fatty belly.

Reviving Your Abdominals Through Exercise

Our bellies are fat because our abdominal muscles are flaccid and underactive. In the following exercise, you will learn how to pair isometric abdominal contraction with paced, diaphragmatic breathing using the anti-laxity method from Chapter 13.


Allowing the diaphragm to push the stomach out is key to diaphragmatic breathing. The sight of a protruding abdomen, however, is not fashionable in our society. This is why many people habitually suck in their gut, which can keep the diaphragm tense and limit its motion. You should feel comfortable anywhere poking your stomach out as far as it can go. At first, you will look like you have a potbelly, just as retracting your neck gives you a double chin. However, as these muscles gain natural tone, your stomach will slim. Pushing the stomach out is also vital to lower back health, as it cushions the lumbar spine during forward bends. Let’s use anti-rigidity (contracting directly into achiness) to fix this.

For maximum results, perform the last two abdominal exercises from several different positions: standing, kneeling, crouching, taking one knee, squatting, lying on the back, etc.

Reviving Your Abdomen Through Massage

Performing myofascial release on the lower back and love handles dramatically diminished my stores of local fat. This got me wondering whether the same technique could decrease abdominal fat deposits. It sounds too good to be true, right? It’s not. Much of the rectus abdominis has been traumatized because of the way it instinctually contracts without rest during fear. All this strain leads to a “dead gut” that fails to burn fat. Getting the trauma out will make your abdominals much stronger, make ab exercises easier, and help your core to be more engaged during everything you do. To do this, in the next exercise we will percuss the abdomen while lying on the back.


This activity will wake up your core, but as with all forms of massage, overdoing it can diminish muscle mass. For this reason, just do it until you get the intense achiness out.


Restaurant owners know that people don’t want to pay for raw, unprocessed food. This is because unprocessed food is cheap and involves very little preparation. Consequently, it is perceived to have very little added value.  Restaurants provide a service by processing the food such as frying or baking/cooking in oil. We are all addicted to these unhealthy preparations. Eating bland, chewy, raw, unprocessed food is work, but it is how wild animals and people stay lean and healthy. Employing nonresistance, nonjudgment, healthy breathing, and a bit of old-fashioned stoicism will help.
People who overeat to reduce their stress will find that what their bodies are really hungering for is exercise. The use of cardiovascular exercise in the reduction of stress will be discussed in the next chapter.

Chapter Twenty: Bullet Points

  • We don’t crave healthy foods because we have not had the experience of getting full on them by themselves. Give yourself that experience by eating full meals that consist of only fruits and vegetables.
  • Use a blender to turn fruit and vegetables into smoothies. It is a speedy, healthy, inexpensive, and low-calorie way to get full.
  • We overeat unhealthy food to transiently increase our dopamine and endorphins as an attempt to self-medicate against panic and stress.
  • We have spent our lives pairing hunger with thoracic breathing. This is why hunger causes distress, which, in turn, causes us to overeat. By fasting for a meal and pairing the fasting experience with paced breathing, you can detraumatize your nervous system’s relationship with hunger.
  • Stop eating when you feel 80% satiated.
  • Only start eating when you feel at least 80% hungry.
  • People with copious dormant muscle must diet to a stress-inducing extent to maintain a healthy weight. Reviving dormant muscle using anti-rigidity will increase your metabolism.
  • Most people have an extensive reservoir of dormant abdominal muscle. Your stomach will become much leaner if you rehabilitate this muscle with massage and anti-laxity and anti-rigidity exercises.


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