The pleasure principle

No calorie counting, no food groups to avoid--just you enjoying each and every bite while the weight melts off. Sounds too good to be true? Read on.
When was the last time you dug into a plate of utterly flavorful biriyani without a sliver of guilt casting a lingering shadow? When did you last revel in the sensation of a chocolate truffle melting across your tongue or savor the sweetness of sun ripened strawberries? If you've been struggling to lose the weight that's slowly crept on you thanks to changing hormones and a stalled metabolism, your answer is probably "rarely" or "never." What if you could indulge in your favorite foods without a single thought for how many calories, grams of fat, or carbs they contain--and still lose weight?

Well, Jena la Flamme, a weight loss expert in New York City, says you can do just that. The secret: Learn to work with your body's innate, biological need for pleasure. Indeed, science has shown that the desire for pleasure is embedded in our DNA and causes us to seek out the feel-good sensation multiple times a day. la Flamme believes that if you're overweight, “there's a good chance that you're pleasure deprived and have been using food--a fast and easy pleasure hit--as a substitute for play, joy, and sensuality." She says the key to reaching your healthy weight is to embrace a variety of things that tap into that happy brain chemistry--not just food but friendships, movement, music, art, relaxation, and love." She does this through Pleasurable Weight Loss, a program that trains women to work with, rather than fight against, their bodies' desire for pleasure in order to lose weight.

But how do you learn to work with your body? First, understand the chain reaction that leads to that irresistible buzz of bliss. It starts when you encounter or think about something that sparks anticipation. Quickly your brain stem releases a surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates the parts of your brain that play a role in reward and addiction. When they're turned on, you experience the sensation of wanting--or wanting more of--the pleasurable thing you're looking at or thinking about, whether it's sex, shopping, or that box of rasagullas calling to you from the refrigerator. When you act on your desire, small areas within those brain structures release intoxicating neurotransmitters, such as enkephalin (an opiate-like substance) and anandamide (the brain's version of marijuana), to create the feeling of enjoyment.

Things that make you go hmmmm...

So whether you're scooping up spiced khajoor cupcakes (yes they do exist!), listening to music, or doing exercise you enjoy, a remarkably similar process occurs in the brain, causing you to feel that powerful sensation of enjoyment. To use pleasure as a weight loss tool: enjoy food more while eating less and recognize when a non edible source of joy (be it chatting with a friend or indulging in finger-painting sessions with your little one) will soothe your soul more than a third glass of Chardonnay or another helping of that cupcake.

And while you're at it, forget you ever heard of the concept of calories. "The deprivation approach to dieting causes stress, because you beat yourself up when you gain a pound and feel worried and guilty every time you eat," says Jena la Flamme. "Stress creates an environment in your body that actually makes it harder to lose weight." When you're stressed, your body releases hormones that stimulate your appetite for fatty treats like cookies, cake, and ice cream. When you indulge in these sweets, your body responds by producing insulin, a hormone that prompts the storage of calories as fat, explains Mary Dallman, PhD, professor emerita of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies how stress affects diet and weight. The eating, the stress, the weight gain, all lead to low self esteem, to sadness. In the end, it's a vicious cycle.

Sheela Krishanaswamy, Bangalore-based nutritionist, says in her work, she often meets clients who admit that their emotional state affects their eating habits. “They say they reach out to unhealthy foods when they are stressed or sad. So it is important to find the root cause for that stress and sadness. That needs to be tackled first,” says Krishnaswamy.

During her many years of "trying every diet out there," Birgitte Philippides, 45, a hair and makeup artist in New York City, stepped on the scale several times a day and judged herself based on the number. "It was an instrument of torture that never failed to make me feel bad about myself," she says. After she started working with la Flamme nearly a decade ago, she got rid of her scale, and her restrictive, punitive approach to food. "Over 2 years, she shaved about 30 pounds (15 kilos) off her 210-pound frame. "I gauge my weight by how my pants fit, and if I put on a little, I use that as a cue, not to cut calories but to reduce stress," she says. "I've learned to be gentle with myself."

Make food an experience

Is Birgitte's experience all that different from what each of us has gone through? Ask Monika Manchanda, a larger-than-life connoisseur of food who runs a boutique baking business 'Sin-A-Mon' 
in Bangalore. When it comes to diets, she's been there, done that. And more. But now she's finally discovered a mantra that works for her. “Listen to your body, be aware of what you eat and balance it out. That's what works for me,” says Manchanda, whose not-so-guilty pleasure is dark chocolate 
“but only with 70 per cent cacao or more”. Manchanda, is unlike you or me, surrounded by sinful creations all the time (and all of her own making!). Because the USP of her business are her uniquely Indian twists on universal favorites--chikki brownies, badaam milk cupcakes, spiced khajoor cupcakes, coconut barfi tarts, pista truffles, delectable rasmalai-gajar halwa on and so forth. Which means Manchanda is well versed in the fine art of plating up delightful, pleasure-inducing food. Yet for her merely consuming a divinely 'desi' cupcake is not a real treat anymore. “A meal for me, is special because of the people you eat it with, the ambiance and of course, the food. The entire experience makes it memorable,” says Manchanda whose comfort foods include “dal-chawal” or “chicken-curry and paratha”.

Come to think of it, eating has always been a sensory art for us Indians, rather than a mere 'function' to accomplish with the aid of gleaming cutlery. So why not as Manchanda says, re-learn the old ways, learn to “experience” food again?

Awaken your sense of pleasure

Step 1.
Lay out the following: a square of dark chocolate, a lemon wedge, a strawberry, a bottle of essential oil (jasmine or peppermint, say), a rose, a feather, a piece of silk, and a bell.
Step 2.
Sit in a chair so the objects are within easy reach, and then tie a blindfold around your eyes.
Step 3.
One by one, pick up each object and slowly explore it. Taste the food; sniff the oil or flower; brush the silk against the skin of your cheek, stomach, and thighs; listen to the sound of the bell.
Step 4.
Remove the blindfold and look around you, taking in the sensory beauty of your surroundings. Try to carry that openness to pleasure forward into your everyday life.

A good way to get back in touch with our senses would be to try 'eating meditation', suggests Revathi Ann Jagan, a mom-of-two in Bangalore. “Eating meditation is about the look and feel and taste and touch of food as a whole. Take a grape, for instance, look at it, it's colour, size, shape, unique aroma. Touch it, feel it against your skin. Taste it, savor that burst of sweet and sharp flavors on your tongue. This method elevates eating into a whole new experience. Trust me, you'll never look at food or fruit or anything edible the same way again,” stresses Jagan, who follows You tube videos for her eating meditation sessions.

Eat what makes you feel good

la Flamme says sometimes your favorite treat, eaten mindfully, is just what the doctor ordered for a quick mood boost. "Sugar and fat in particular trigger the brain's pleasure circuit," she says. But a pleasure-based diet doesn't mean gorging on pastries and chips. "One piece of chocolate cake can make you happy. Two will give you a stomachache," she says.

By paying attention to how food makes you feel--in the moment, in the following hour, and even the next day--you can start to use pleasure as a guide to a healthy diet. You may be shocked to find that the foods that give you the most pleasure are actually good for you, like a piece of fresh fish or a cool slice of juicy watermelon.

The essence here is that mindful eating leads to better health. That is why Sheela Krishnaswamy adds: “When we pay attention to what we eat, we tend to enjoy the food better and feel satisfied much sooner. Also we are more conscious of our food choices in mindful eating.  This is similar to the Yogic way of eating which our ancestors prescribed–no distractions, no work, no TV, no computers, but only attention to what’s on our plate”. 

Slow down, savor every bite

Something else that weight loss experts and nutritionists advocate is to slow down while eating. “When you wolf your food, you miss the experience of eating and the pleasure that goes with it," says la Flamme. Eating slowly has other benefits too. Ruth Wolever, PhD, director of research at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, NC, did a recent study where she and her colleagues trained people (who had lost, on average, 18% of their body weight), to be mindful while eating. The participants were able to maintain their weight loss for 15 months--a critical period during which many dieters regain--but they noticed things they never had before about their food choices. "One woman realized the cookies she'd always thought she loved didn't actually taste that good," says Dr. Wolever. "When we eat quickly, we tend to overeat, not because we're hungry, but because we don't feel satisfied when we're done." Slowing down allows you to recognize when your joy in the meal is waning and gives your body time to send fullness signals to your brain, a process that takes about 20 minutes. In fact, Mumbai-based celebrity nutritionist, Rujuta Diwekar, who emphasizes the importance of Yoga, exercise and eating mindfully in her programs, always exhorts clients to “tune in to your stomach, it is your best diet guru”.

Think of your body as a separate creature

"Your body has its own wisdom," says la Flamme. "If you tap into that, you can make better choices, not only about diet, but about whether you're hungry for food or for something else, like love, attention, or rest."

Find Pleasure in. . .
Your morning cup of coffee
A soft, silky dress
Warm sunshine on your skin
Your favorite work of art
Luscious ripe strawberries
The fresh scent of lavender
A warm bubble bath
Laughter shared with best friends
The sound of rain hitting the roof
Rich dark chocolate
A soothing massage
Loving, satisfying sex
Tune in to your sensuality

Some people hold on to extra weight because they're scared to look sexy," says la Flamme. "In order to lose weight, you need to embrace your femininity and reconnect with your 'erotic innocence'--the part of you that leans in to sniff a bouquet of flowers, that lights up at the sight of a sunset, and that relishes the intimacy of sex." The best part: If you're delighting yourself with your senses, you're less likely to turn to food for pleasure.

Delight in movement

Exercise is a powerful way to tap into the brain's pleasure circuit, says John Ratey, MD, the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. "Physical activity prompts the release not just of dopamine and endorphins but also of norepinephrine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants," he says. It also increases levels of endocannabinoids (chemical compounds similar to the active substance in marijuana and possibly responsible for runner's high) and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (a type of protein that's low in depressed people).

But you don't need to always sweat it out, why not get fitter and enjoy fabulous food while trying something new. Try a wine tour. Vineyards in Nashik and around Bangalore offer wine holidays where you can stay, stretch out in the sun, go for treks, and also soak in wine-drenched meals. Or sign on for a wellness holiday. Rujuta Diwekar, for instance, conducts wellness holidays at destinations in Rishikesh, Goa or Darjeeling, where she offers a mix of local culture, cuisine, people, group exercises, lectures on food and nutrition.

Surprising Ways to Boost Your Bliss

Why not create a list of the sensations, tastes, sights, scents, and sounds that give you a happiness hit. If you work them into your life on a regular basis, you'll be less likely to reach for unhealthy foods to make you feel good--and when you're craving a doughnut or a moong dal halwa cupcake, you'll have plenty of guilt-free, pleasure-boosting alternatives.

"Our skin is a wonderful sensory organ and a powerful source of pleasure if we choose to use it," says la Flamme. Not surprisingly, studies of orgasm have found that it triggers an intense response in the brain's pleasure circuit, but even a soft caress on the arm can elicit happiness. So focus on the way the wind or sun feels against your cheek. Do impromptu group hug sessions with your family. Or take advantage of the pleasure-boosting range of human touch, whether it's a massage at a spa, a bear hug from a friend, or sex.

Research shows that the biggest pleasure buzz comes from an unhealthy combination of sweet and fat, but nutritious foods can be a source of joy too. "Experiment with a variety of spices and herbs, and try new vegetables and ethnic recipes with exotic flavors and ingredients to expand the range of pleasure you get from eating," says la Flamme.

In a 2011 study, University College London researchers studying brain activity in people viewing works of art detected signs of pleasure when participants gazed at pieces they found particularly beautiful. So visit art galleries to find new styles that you admire, and surround yourself with home decor that pleases the eye.

The brain circuitry activated by scent overlaps in part with the pleasure circuit, so long as you perceive what you're smelling as appealing. So go on, dab your favorite essential oil on your skin.

Not only does listening to music release dopamine in the brain, but merely anticipating enjoyable music can spur its release, according to a 2011 study. Use sites like to find new music that delights you.

This feature (basically, I wrote the 'Indian' portions) appeared in Prevention India magazine recently. Want to see the original piece featured in Prevention USA? Click here:

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