Keeping slim is not a problem for people who adopt a healthy life style. It doesn’t require strenuous effort. There’s no need to jog, pump iron or count calories. All that’s necessary is to adopt a medley of simple habits. One of these is to take time to drink a large glass of water before every meal. Our ancestors lived of diets rich in fruit and vegetables, which means they had a high fluid content. We exist on concentrated foodstuffs which are stuffed with calories, sugars and fats but contain relatively little fluid. Recent research suggests that this major dietary change could be fooling our bodies into eating more than they really need. Dr George Blackburn, director of the Center for the Study of Nutritional Medicine at Harvard Medical School, is one of the nutritionists who believe that what the brain today interprets as hunger may sometimes actually be thirst. This would not be surprising in view of our evolutionary history as hunter gatherers, or from the fact that the brain centres responsible for the regulation of hunger and thirst are situated close together in the brain stem. If this theory is true, then it would seem wise to satisfy the body’s need for water before we sate its need for food. If nothing else, this would fill our stomachs and reduce our tendency to bolt our food. This is the objective of the Japanese tea ceremony, when tea is drunk to still the mind
rather than merely quench the thirst. This belief is conveyed in the old Buddhist saying: ‘The taste of ch’an (Zen) and the taste of ch’a (tea) are the same.’
Drinking a glass of water before a meal may be of particularly value during the winter months. This is the time of the year when many people register a seasonal weight gain. Many attempts have been made to explain this phenomenon. Some suggest that in the Northern Hemisphere, at this time of the year, our body clocks register the decline in the sunlight index. When deprived of light many people feel a trifle depressed, which may cause them to comfort-eat. This is a particular risk for sensitive people who succumb with clockwork regularity to Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. Others think that when the days are short we have less time, and little inclination, to burn up calories by indulging in outdoor exercise. But there’s a third explanation, which nobody yet seems to have considered. If there’s any validity in Dr Blackburn’s hypothesis, we may overeat in the winter to satisfy our thirst. Most of our offices and homes are now centrally heated and carefully insulated to prevent heat loss and keep out draughts. This can cause their humidity levels to fall to an uncomfortable extent.
Even in the most arid deserts, the relative humidity rarely drops below twenty to thirty per cent. In overheated, enclosed room it’s not uncommon for it to fall as low as three to five per cent during the winter months. In these arid conditions furniture warps, indoor plants wilt, pianos go out of tune and the skin and mucous membranes of our eyes, nose and throat grow dry, which increases our risk of suffering conjunctivitis, sinusitis and infections of the upper respiratory tract. At these times we naturally feel thirsty, and if we don’t drink to slake our thirst we may well be fooled into over eating. With the central heating going at full blast, the average modern home may require an additional sixty pints of moisture per day to maintain an adequate level of humidity. This vast quantity can’t be supplied, as it was in the past, by the putting a saucer of water in front of the fire. It requires the installation of a purpose built humidifier. As a temporary alternative, we should step up our intake of water. This is particularly important for the over-fifties, for thirst perception diminishes with age and continues to decline the older we get.
The question is, does this phenomenon help explain the adiposity of elderly people, and those who show a seasonal weight gain during the winter months? To put this query to the test, Brenda Davy, a nutritional scientist at Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, carried out a weight loss experiment. She put a group of would-be slimmers on an identical low-calorie diet. Half of the group was asked to drink two small glasses of water before their meals; the other ate their allotted meals without any prior attempt to quench their thirst. The results showed that at the end of the of the twelve week trial period the water drinkers had lost an average of seven kilograms compared with the control group which had lost two kilograms less. More important still, when the volunteers were followed up at a later stage, it was found that those who’d maintained the water drinking habit were significantly better at maintaining their weight loss.
This is not the whole answer to safe and simple slimming. But combined with over thirty more tips we’ll be providing on this site over the coming months, it provides an easy and effective guide to incremental weight control. The evidence shows that for many reasons we’d be wise to follow the Zen example, and enjoy a leisurely drink of water before every meal.
Copyright Donald Norfolk 2010