SANE Expectations About Weight Loss with Gina Ryan

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Gina: Aloha, Jonathan. It’s so nice to be with you.

Jonathan: Hey, Gina. Thank you so much for having me here and having a conversation with me. It’s so nice to put a face to the voice. I’ve communicated with you for so long but I’ve never actually seen you.

Gina: I know. Absolutely. It’s been years and I really have appreciated your staying in connection because it helps me stay in connection with my people, you know? It’s just the teacher needs a teacher and we all learn from other people and since I so much enjoy the work that you’re doing in the food [PD 0:35]. I love the way that you’re moving from the calories to the quality and it’s so important. I even had a little booklet I wrote from a client about real food. We’ve been talking about this for a long time but to have somebody actually put it all together and have all the science and everything over these years that you have done is so timely. It really is about time.

What I wanted to ask you some questions today about were the kinds of people that I am dealing with a lot. [I feel 1:11] a wide population, but a very big segment of my people — I would say eighty percent — are chronic dieters, menopausal/postmenopausal women, people who have history of being of larger size and maybe not being able to fit in to what they see as the model ideal, and people with eating disorder history. So I wanted to ask you what you might advise these people if and/or when they didn’t lose weight and the SANE Solution kind of program that you are putting together. What would you say to them to keep them inspired to take care of themselves still?

Jonathan: Gina, you know I’m not a big fan of calories, as you mentioned. The title of my book is The Calorie Myth and one of the reasons I do not like focusing on calories is because calories make us think about our metabolism mathematically and our metabolism doesn’t work mathematically, meaning that — and we’ve all experienced this. We’ve heard the myth of “Oh, just cut 500 calories per day and that means you’ll cut 3,500 calories per week which means you’ll lose one pound per week which means, over the course of four years, you’ll lose 200 pounds and eventually you’ll weigh negative numbers.” But it doesn’t actually make sense.

But what that does to us, because we’ve actually been taught that our metabolism works like math for fifty years, when we think about healing our bodies and we think about weight loss, we tend to think of it as a linear process. Now, my background is in engineering. I don’t want to get too engineering on you here but we tend to think that there is this steady linear weight loss that happens when you undertake any sort of health activity. What I would like to shift the conversation to is thinking about your body not like a mathematical equation but rather thinking about your metabolism just like you think about any other part of your body. Let me give you a concrete example.

Let’s say you were to break your ankle. So you broke your ankle and the next day, it doesn’t really feel better. The day after that, it doesn’t really feel better. You can put it in a splint but it’s going to take a few months and in fact if you’ve broken your ankle a couple of times, the more times you’ve broken your ankle, the longer it’s going to take to heal it each time. And if you don’t really keep your weight off your ankle and you don’t really do what you need to do to get it healed, it’s going to take longer to heal. But then one day, after you spend a couple of months healing your body, you’ll be able to walk on your ankle and it will seem like a miracle because it’s like you had this cast on your ankle, your ankle was broken, but then one day, after many months, now your ankle works again.

What people who improve the quality of their eating experience is something much more like this. They experience metabolic healing. They don’t experience the slight and diminishing weight loss that comes from starvation dieting because, to be clear, if you starve yourself hard enough, you will lose weight but that’s not healthy or effective. But if you go and you heal your body, whether it’s a broken ankle or a broken metabolism, if you step back, give your body what it needs to heal itself and then be patient, you will see results. To be clear, you might not see the results the media says you should want, but you will see results. Let me give you one more example to extend that broken ankle analogy. I have blown my knee out three times. I used to play a lot of sports. I have blown my right anterior cruciate ligament out three times. After the third blowing out of my knee, it didn’t work as well as after the second time I blew it out or after the first time I blew it out and it certainly never worked as well as before I ever blew it out.

Now, Gina, what a lot of us face is we lived through the Great Nutritional Depression which was this period of time in the ‘80s and ‘90s where we were just told, “Look, fat’s evil. Just eat sugar, processed nonsense.” Gina, it’s an inconvenient truth but it’s a truth nonetheless that this did, in some ways, permanent damage to our metabolism. And that’s just a fact. Just like smoking can do permanent damage to your metabolism, eating some of these edible products could do permanent damage to your metabolism. But I’m here to say that, just like if you’ve broken your ankle five times, that doesn’t mean you can’t heal it after breaking it a sixth time. However, your ankle might not work the same way it worked before you ever broke it and it also might not work the same way or heal as quickly as if you were twenty if you’re sixty.

So just try to shift the model of weight loss to be more of a model of “How does my body heal?” and the same things we would think about if you had the flu and you only got two hours of sleep per night and you didn’t really take in enough vitamin C and you really didn’t take steps to heal your body, it would take longer to get over the flu. If you’re eighty-five when you get the flu, it takes longer to get over the flu than if you’re eight and you get the flu. So take those same parameters, the same benchmarks you use for every other measurement of health, and apply it to your metabolism as well.

That was a really long-winded answer but did that help at all?

Gina: Absolutely. Absolutely. You hit the nail on the head. The damage to metabolism is just like damage to any other part and some people heal more completely or faster, just like with the ankle example, and I think once we can have our minds wrapped around that, we can get beyond looking at weight as a goal versus it really just is a reflection of health. It’s where we’re at with all our systems.

Jonathan: And especially the weight measurement, in general, I would say, is as obsolete and counterproductive as calories, dare I say. I mean, you use calories to reduce your weight but you use high-quality nutrient-dense SANE foods to increase your health. And when you increase your health, what a lot of people — a lot of people — especially a lot of people who practice my approach of the SANE Solution actually generally do not experience — I mean, some people do. If you weigh 500 pounds, you’re going to lose weight because you have a lot of weight to lose but if you’re otherwise healthy, what you will see is a radical change in your body composition, meaning your waist will shrink first and foremost, your arms will tone up, you will become tighter and firmer but your weight might not change at all because you’re going to burn off fat but you will build muscle tissue. Ten pounds of muscle tissue takes up way less space on your body than ten pounds of fat so if you could take a magic pill — which doesn’t exist — actually it does, it’s called vegetables — so if you could take a magic pill, which is called vegetables, tomorrow and it would cause you to lose ten pounds of fat and gain ten pounds of muscle, you would weigh the exact same but you would look noticeably tighter.

Gina: Absolutely, absolutely. Yes. This is really more of a mind game right now for a lot of people.

Jonathan: That’s exactly right.

Gina: Yeah, because your approach, I think, is so well explained that it’s going to hit more people. Your examples are always wonderful and they stick with people in their mind. I will be remembering the broken ankle for a while. What do you say about how we can continue to increase our awareness around just looking at quality of food versus the calories because — and specifically women, I’m talking here. I know men are more falling into this category now too — but they’re so outwardly focused on the particular look, size, weight — all those numbers. And so, how can we help steer their awareness to quality of life and using food to help us to get there. Do you have any words of wisdom around that?

Jonathan: At the core of the calorie model — and this becomes a little bit less scientific and a little bit more realistic so you might have to reel me in a little bit here — but at the core of the calorie model is a model of inaccuracy. I would actually argue that it’s almost like the doctrine of original sin. At the root of the calorie model is that we are defective by default and that unless we consciously intervene, we’re going to overeat and we need to almost get smacked on the wrist with a ruler. Like, “food is bad. Stop eating. Stop eating so much. Food is bad. You’re bad because unless you consciously count calories, you’re going to overeat.” So, a couple of things — one, if we can realize that, first and foremost, just objectively, human beings are not designed or evolved — depending on your belief system but it fits in both camps — we are not designed to be overweight any more than we are designed to get cancer. Overweight is not a moral failing. It is a metabolic condition much like diabetes is a metabolic condition and the more we start to understand overweight and obesity as the metabolic disorder that it is, the more we can treat it like we would treat any other medical condition we have versus thinking about it as a character flaw that we need to overcome.

If you’re diabetic, you probably don’t beat yourself up every day and look in the mirror and just say, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe — I need to just try harder to not be diabetic. I just really do. I just need to try harder.” The irony with that example is that we might say, “That sounds silly, Jonathan,” but at the end of the day, diabetes — adult-onset diabetes is caused by the quality of food we’re eating. Diabetes is the breakdown of your body’s ability to regulate your blood sugar automatically and when that happens, you need to consciously intervene. You need to count your blood sugar, for lack of better terms, because your body has lost its ability to do that.

Now, we know that taking insulin doesn’t cure diabetes and we know that diabetes isn’t a moral failing. What diabetes is is a dysfunction of certain elements of our body. Now, if we can understand that obesity is a similar condition — so it’s a breakdown in, for example, your hypothalamus in your brain, its’ ability to automatically balance energy; it’s a breakdown a lot of bacteria in your gut; it’s a breakdown of hormonal balance in your body. You can heal that and you’re not lazy and you’re not a glutton. You did the best you could with the information you were given and, heartbreakingly, that information was wrong and we, as a nation, are paying the price for that now but if you can start —

There was a big hubbub, Gina, a couple of years ago about — I believe when the American Medical Association came out and literally said, “Obesity is a disease.” There was a bunch of media. Some people said that’s good; some people said that’s bad. I personally went on record saying I think that’s good because, one, it’s accurate, and two, if we start to look at obesity as a medical condition rather than a moral failing, we can make progress; but if we just think it’s a result of human weakness, we can’t.

You are not struggling with your metabolic health because you have failed; you are struggling with your metabolic health — and this is a fact — because you have been given incorrect information. This is not my opinion. This is coming from the Harvard Medical School; this is coming from Johns Hopkins. I mean, it is now widely accepted that the Food Guide Pyramid that influenced how we should all eat is patently wrong and might even be the worst way to eat. So once you understand —

One more example, Gina, and then I’ll wrap up this very long answer. Imagine that you were alive a little over 100 years ago because a little over 100 years ago, the mainstream said that smoking wasn’t bad for you. In fact, there were doctors in ads saying smoking is not bad for you; it’s actually good for your T-zone. Now, let’s say that the science never came to the surface and that we all lived our lives thinking that smoking was harmless or maybe that it’s even good for us in moderation — there’s a fun term that we hear about in nutrition a lot — and then we ended up having seventy percent of America having lung cancer. Is that their fault or did they just act on the information they were given?

I believe that’s the situation. We live in a world where unless you really, really, really try hard; if you eat the standard American diet, you are doing to your metabolism, you are putting toxic substances into your body just like smoking is putting toxic substances into your body but you were never told that; you were just told to count calories. Heck, by that logic, smoking isn’t even bad for you because it has no calories in it.

Gina: Right. Excellent. Excellent answer. I appreciate that because it is about information and as we grow as a society and a culture, information changes. We make new revelations and we have to be willing to explore those and move along forward with them and it seems like, with the calorie thing, they just stayed put with that for a very long time so I’m really hoping that this information can get out a lot faster. Talking about that we had bad information, how do you think you would talk about how, in the past, people didn’t need to be told how to eat, right? If we go back a number of — not even that many generations back — they weren’t reading books on it. So where did that come from? What about the wisdom of our bodies? Where does that come into play?

Jonathan: The thing that disproves calorie math is the scientific verification of this wisdom that you describe. So I think we’ve all intuitively known that, at the end of the day, we’re each individuals, we’re each brilliant, we all have an innate wisdom about what is good or bad for us. We know that. And when we look below the surface, we can actually prove that. For example, we can prove that there are hormones in your body and that there are components of your brain that are specifically designed to say, “When you eat calories, make me satisfied — satisfied to the point where I don’t over-consume calories.”

Just like you have parts of your brain and functions in your body where, when you drink more water, you automatically go to the bathroom more; you don’t have to think about it. I know that sounds a little bit silly but the wisdom of your body, in a very benign sense, takes care of keeping you drinking and excreting the proper amount of water. It also takes care of air; it also takes care of your blood sugar, unless you get diabetes; your blood pressure — all of those things. All biological organisms are intended to maintain a state of homeostasis. That’s what we all learned in high school biology class. It means a state of balance in which life can thrive.

Once you get that energy balance isn’t this weird exception that doesn’t work like every other system in the body, then you start to say, “Okay, consciously counting calories, while it can “work,” is a little bit like consciously counting your breaths. Can you hold your breath for a short period of time? You absolutely can, just like you can try to not go to the bathroom, but over a while, the wisdom of the body will win out. But what has happened — and Gina, this is where it gets really, really heartbreaking, is —

So we’re born and until that system is broken, it’s there and it’s brilliant. But what we’re seeing now is — this is a severe analogy — but if you ask a heroin addict what their body is telling them they need, they will say “more heroin.” Right? Because there’s something off. There’s something that needs to be healed and fixed. So for many of us, the wisdom of our bodies has actually been jaded a little bit because our brains have been rewired by a lot of these toxic elements in our food supply.

For a period of time, we have to just consciously ensure we’re taking in sufficient doses of nutritional therapy to heal that system and to restore the wisdom of the body and then what you will experience is that you will never need to diet again. Just like a vegetarian doesn’t think they’re dieting, that’s just how they eat, or a kosher person doesn’t think they’re dieting, that’s just how they eat, because this is tied into their identity; it’s tied into how they see themselves, and then once you can really heal your brain, your hormones, and your gut, your body will be pushing you towards these SANE foods like non-starchy vegetables, nutritious protein, whole food fats, and low-sugar fruits rather than pushing you towards these addictive toxic elements that have been foisted upon us over the past forty years.

Gina: Absolutely. And you have to get away from the heroin to get off the heroin. You have to get away from those toxic foods and you can’t have them in moderation, so to speak, because they keep you tied in. They really keep you tied in.

Jonathan: And, Gina, that’s such an important analogy and sometimes people will dismiss it outright of like, “Food isn’t like a drug.”

Gina: Today’s food.

Jonathan: It is. It is. Let me just give you one thought process to help with that. Okay. What is food? Food is something you put into your body that then turns into chemicals. It dissolves into something. What is a pharmaceutical? The pharmaceutical doesn’t have calories in it. Does that make it not food? Well, no, not really because we consider Diet Coca-Cola food and it doesn’t have calories in it so the determinant of food isn’t that which has calories in it. How about we just say, if you put it in your body, it has a dramatic impact on you. So, there you go.

Gina: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. That’s part of what you’re educating people on, is to be able to see all of these elements, and I think that that wisdom of the body then takes over. Once you’ve broken the chain and you’ve healed — once you’ve healed, you can actually trust the impulses of your body when it’s not looking for the fix anymore.

Really, working with eating-disordered women for years and years, they do know they need a little more protein in their diet when they start healing. They’re actually shocked with the idea. “I feel like I need more protein.” It’s beautiful because our bodies do know but we can’t get there without healing. I love nutritional therapy. That’s a wonderful way to look at it. Yeah, it comes in a pill. It just comes in a pill on your plate three times a day. Right? Big bowls of vegetables and your good proteins.

I know you have a lot of people to talk to, Jonathan, so any last words of wisdom before I let you go?

Jonathan: Gina, just in closing, the theme, I think, of our conversation so far has been the word “healing” and that is the fundamental difference between what we’re trying to do at SANE Solution and what you will see at a conventional calorie-counting program such as a Weight Watchers or a Jenny Craig, where at the end of the day, saying —

There’s fundamentally two approaches to wellness or weight loss — let’s really simplify this. One is to say, keep eating what you’re eating; just eat less of it. There’s another approach which is, change what you’re eating. There’s really only two approaches. You can either attack the quantity of food you’re eating or you can attack — I don’t really like that word — you can ‘focus on’ the quality of food you’re eating. You will never heal your body by eating less toxic stuff. That’s just like saying, “I’m going to heal my hand that I’m burning on the stove by touching the stove more gently” or “I’m going to not get lung cancer by smoking shorter cigarettes. It might slow the development of lung cancer but it will never heal your lungs. Smoking shorter cigarettes will never heal your lungs.

Now, imagine if you were breathing in an abundance of clean air. That’s what I want you to think about. When you start to take in an abundance of SANE foods, and hopefully when you start to look at it that way, when you start to look at an approach of healing yourself first, you can see that calorie counting can never work because it’s just like smoking shorter cigarettes and really the only approach is this nutritional therapy of eating more but of the right kinds of SANE foods. That was a long last word.

Gina: Absolutely. Jonathan, thank you so much for spending time with me today. I’ve loved you for years and I’m so glad that everything is just blossoming the way it is. Will you please keep in touch?

Jonathan: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Gina.

Gina: Thank you, Jonathan. Aloha.