The new year is a good time to reevaluate our values and consider our priorities to improve our health and well-being. It is said you are doing well if indeed, you actually make one or two significant changes in a year. Losing weight is a common, notoriously difficult challenge.

While excess weight undoubtedly affects health in many ways, it is important to realize that the reverse is also true. Your physical, mental and emotional health all affect your weight. Perhaps it would be wise to consider taking the laser focus off of “losing weight” and focus on “getting healthier” instead? Being skinny doesn’t necessarily mean you are healthy. Let’s shine the light on increasing vibrant health and let the weight take care of itself. Here are a few ideas that may help.

“Intermittent eating” improves health at the cellular level. Nutrition experts actually call this “intermittent fasting,” but I would rather eat than fast! I admit, with some chagrin, that in spite of my education on the benefits of fasting, I only last a day or two. Intermittent eating offers many of fasting’s benefits in a kinder, gentler way. The easiest way to do this is to eat food most days in an 8-hour window, leaving 16 hours for rest and recovery. I try not to eat late at night or early in the morning anyway, because this is hard on the gut. So, dinner at 6 p.m. and a light breakfast at 10 a.m. allows for a 16-hour “fast.” While it might feel like cheating, you actually get important benefits.

One in eight Americans is metabolically healthy. Few of us have ideal levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, cholesterol, blood pressure or waist circumference — without relying on pharmaceuticals. We Americans are on average overfed and undernourished. This leads to poor health and poor quality of life. Taking a mini-break from eating can correct these problems. Our ancestors didn’t have unlimited access to food as we do, so the human body has a built in master switch for lean times. This metabolic master switch determines if our 50 trillion cells are busy “producing” or busy “recovering.” A balance of both is important.

Digesting food takes work; too much work leads to fatigue, diabetes, obesity and many other chronic problems. Not eating frees the cleaning crew to break down older, worn, less vital parts and recycle them. Resting allows the cells to rejuvenate and repair, to remove the sludge, if you will. Imagine your car repairing and rebuilding itself while sitting in the garage overnight.

A 16-hour pause in eating trains your body to dig deeper for energy. Dinner at 6 p.m. and breakfast at 10 a.m. the following morning is one way to do this. This short rest burns fat and improves your metabolic health in myriad ways. The resultant metabolic changes improve blood levels of cholesterol, sugar, triglycerides and insulin. Growth hormone levels skyrocket, inflammation is reduced and the stress response, cognition, endurance and hormone balance are all improved. Losing body fat is merely icing on the … um, broccoli. All these improvements help you look better, feel better and function better.

The point is, when you eat can be as important as what you eat. Indigestion, heartburn, and numerous digestive ailments arise with ill-timed noshing. Eat when you are relaxed, as this is when your digestive system works best. Eating too early or too late in the day forces the gut to work when it would rather be resting. Avoid meals within two hours of going to bed. Eat a light or delayed breakfast.

The body has two modes of operation: go/do/think, or rest/relax/recover. The former turns off the gut and the latter turns it on. When you are stressed, blood is sent to the muscles and brain. When relaxed, blood goes to the gut to absorb nutrients and aid digestion. A hurried meal consumed on the way to work isn’t optimal, and may in fact cause more harm than good. Make it a point to eat when you are relaxed and can enjoy your food.

I hope these few suggestions are helpful as we move into a new year in a positive way, where anything is possible.

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John Winters is a naturopathic physician, who recently retired after operating a practice in La Grande since 1992.

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