Simplify your life: A philosophy that should be applied to weight loss

I was intrigued by David Brooks’ column in the New York Times recently.  It speaks to a renewed interest in an old idea: simplifying life.

Living in a less complicated way is not a new concept (think Walden Pond), but it has gained a greater magnetism in the setting of the hugely complex and acquisitive world in which we now find ourselves.

I personally have enjoyed and benefited from Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.”  This small book, by a Japanese simplification guru, exemplifies the almost religious sensibility of a less distracting life.  Kondo takes things several disorienting steps beyond the traditional organizational advice.  For her, clothes, shoes, and objects have feelings and should be treated with love and gratitude.  You should keep only those things that you truly love, and you should set the others free. While it is a stretch to believe that your gym sneakers resent being thrown under the bed,  it is possible to understand Kondo’s construct in a different way.  We can either infuse the objects in our life with meaning or we can live in a glut of impersonal “things.”  If we surround ourselves primarily with the few things we truly love, they will have room to resonate.  Perhaps the gratitude she suggests we feel for these objects is a reflection of how we feel when the orbit we live in is truly and simply our own.

In my work with obese patients, I’ve always been fascinated with the connection between shedding pounds and the opportunity for re-organizing life.  In my view, this is not given enough consideration by those who design and administer weight loss plans.

Weight gain is no different from what is happening in the houses of most Americans.  We are packed full of stuff.   We have acquired so many things that they overflow our basements, and we are forced to rent storage units.  We haul things off in dumpsters and set out bags for the Goodwill.  Yet we are still overflowing.

Obesity is very similar.  We have bought, consumed and stored much more than we can contain.  We have significantly overestimated our need for sustenance and have made foolish choices that went directly into the storage unit.  Essentially, your extra fat is the stuff you’ve accumulated over the years.  But the body has no Goodwill that will drive up and take it all.

Patients who are over 50 will often share the fact that the process of weight loss has made them interested in other types of downsizing. In his column, David Brooks notes:

Early in life you choose your identity by getting things. But later in an affluent life you discover or update your identity by throwing away what is no longer useful, true and beautiful. One simplicity expert advised people to take all their books off their shelves and throw them on the floor. Only put back the books that you truly value.

No matter what our financial status, those of us who are obese have had an “affluent” food life.  Obesity settles even more on the impoverished in our society because foods that go direct to storage are the cheapest.  It’s hugely ironic that the poorest Americans are the ones drowning in over-accumulated calories.

The process of losing weight should always include a focus on returning the body to as much of a pristine state of health as possible.  The parallel with restoring simplicity to your home and life is direct.  As you lose weight and dispose of that old, unwanted junk, you should be considering what you want to keep, who you want to be.   In bodily terms, a simple life is one in which you are unhampered by unnecessary medicines; one in which you can throw away all those vitamins, supplements, potions and remedies.  A simple bodily life is one in which you’ve learned how to sleep again because you no longer snore, have sleep apnea, wake up with gastric reflux or obsess about what you’re doing to yourself and your health.  In a simple bodily life, there is daily physical exercise and daily time for reflection:  a time set aside for you to clear your mind.  And in a simple bodily life, food is delicious, natural and only what you need.

Do you really need to eat out three times a week?  Do you really need to entertain yourself with every new recipe and each new restaurant that opens?  Can food become, as Marie Kondo suggests about objects, the few simple things that nourish you and reflect your own love of self?

Barbara Berkeley is an internal medicine physician and bariatrician who blogs at Refuse to Regain.

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