Editors’ note: With better eating in mind for the new year, five Washington Post staffers each embark on a month-long effort to change their daily habits. Watch for weekly updates at washingtonpost.com/food.
I’m like most people I know: I eat too often, too much, too quickly — and much of it very late in the day (i.e., night). Like so many others, I’m a snacker as well. At the tiniest sign that I just might be starting to possibly get the slightest bit hungry, I nip it in the bud.
I’m a longtime member of Weight Watchers, and have always appreciated the program’s focus on keeping track and making tradeoffs instead of abiding by categorical, Draconian restrictions. When I follow it, I lose weight; when I stop tracking what I eat and how much I exercise because, well, I want to do so many other things instead, I stop losing. And I gain. After many years of ups and downs, I’m now almost 30 pounds over my goal weight, just a few pounds shy of where I was when I first joined Weight Watchers more than 15 years ago.
I’ve needed another way to think about weight loss, and lately that way has been to explore timing. I was struck a couple years ago by research showing that mice whose eating was restricted to a window of nine to 12 hours lost weight compared with those that could eat whenever they wanted, even though the two groups consumed the same number of calories overall. One of the researchers’ theories is that eating affects our body clock, which in turn affects hormones that influence our metabolism. Whatever the mechanism, when I’ve tried brief stints of eating only over the course of 12 hours, I’ve seen results. I’ve even gotten more used to a little hunger here and there. News flash: As much as we overuse that hyperbolic expression “starving” to describe little more than our impatience for the next meal, I survived just fine.
So several weeks ago, when I picked up a little book called “Buddha’s Diet,” by Tara Cottrell and Dan Zigmond, curious about its subtitle’s promise to help you lose weight “without losing your mind,” I was thrilled to see that it takes that idea and runs with it. You start in that 12-hour window — if the first bite of breakfast is at 8 a.m., you eat nothing caloric after 8 p.m. — and then work your way, two weeks at a time, through 11- and 10-hour windows until you’ve reached the goal: nine hours. One day a week, you can “cheat.” And you keep to nine hours until you’ve lost all the weight you want, at which point you either build in more cheat days or expand the window until you can comfortably maintain your weight.
Those are the only hard-and-fast guidelines in the book, which marries the teachings of Buddha with references to some of the most current, reasonable science regarding nutrition, health and weight loss. Nothing is verboten, not even meat. (Contrary to popular belief, Buddha was not vegetarian, though some of his followers are, and so am I.) The advice is sound: Stay away from processed foods. Protein keeps you full longer than carbs. Whole grains are more satisfying than refined ones. Slow down when you eat, so you can be more in touch with your body’s signals that you’re full. And so on.
Thankfully, the book also offers plenty of guidance — philosophical and practical — about managing those restricted eating windows. I have plenty of anxiety about how I’m going to pull off a nine-hour window, which would mean, say, not consuming a single calorie before 9 a.m. or after 6 p.m. What about the days I exercise in the morning? How about when I go out to eat after work? Will all my eating be done in the office?
This is going to be a challenge, but I’m up for it. Because even though this is part of a 30-day project, I’m open to the possibility of staying on Buddha’s Diet for much longer than that. The ultimate goal: to integrate a new way of healthful eating into my life, in a way that becomes second nature.
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