Broadly, spiritual practice tends to follow either what’s known as the “Progressive Path,” or its counterpart, the “Direct Path.”
The process of losing weight or reducing one’s body fat can be understood in a fascinatingly similar way.
For both, I favor the “Direct Path,” as it helps us avoid common, frustrating pitfalls.
Estimated reading time: 8-16 minutes
I was really excited for today’s article, because writing it means I’m finally ready to share a document that I believe will greatly help you achieve your nutritional goals, overcome challenges, and learn an interesting thing or two along the way. It’s called the Understanding Yourself Nutrition Guide. It will help you overcome the problem of weight regain after successful weight loss, which is the true problem plaguing Western waistlines. In the guide, you’ll find educational materials, guided exercises, and easy-to-use tracking sheets designed to help you feel in complete control of achieving your nutrition-based goals.
The best part? It’s free!
The rest of today’s piece will examine my inspiration for creating this guide by exploring nutrition through a non-traditional lens. Enjoy!
The Parallels Between Nutrition and Spiritual Practice
Out of the nearly 100 articles I’ve written for this blog, one of my favorites was a piece from 2022 entitled Are You A Nutritional Householder or Renunciate? In it, I discuss the similarities between two archetypes of Eastern spirituality and the way in which most people approach weight loss. I posit that too many of us essentially try to be “part-time monks” when it comes to nutrition, temporarily giving up foods we enjoy but making little effort to develop a relationship of moderation with them.
This isn’t the only time I’ve written about the commonalities between nutrition and spirituality, with 2023’s article, What Can Buddhism Teach Us About Weight Loss?, featuring a method for making peace with cravings and hunger. Today, we’re completing the hat trick by exploring what I’m calling the Nutritional Direct Path and the Nutritional Progressive Path. This is yet another concept borrowed from Eastern spirituality, with the Progressive Path and the Direct Path describing different routes to “enlightenment.” But first…
This is a term that admittedly carries a great deal of baggage.
Rewind the clock only five or six years (to 2017, in case this article sticks around for a while), and I would have dismissed most things relating to religion and spirituality as “woo-woo” nonsense. So, I don’t blame you if you roll your eyes at hearing someone bring up “enlightenment.” In my experience, too many people who talk about things of this nature come across as “holier than thou,” speaking in a performatively soft and slow “spiritual voice” that’s absolutely oozing with how much better they think they are than everyone else. That understandably turns many off.
So, let’s quickly demystify “enlightenment.” Rather than some mysterious, mystical concept, think of enlightenment as being in touch with a peaceful, loving connectedness within you that does not depend on external circumstances. For a real-world example, this article about forgiveness recounts a famous story.
When Tibet was invaded by the People’s Liberation Army of China in the 1950s, one monk was jailed for 15 years, tortured nearly the entire time. When he was released, he went to the Dalai Lama and said of his experience, “My Holiness, I was very afraid.” The Dalai Lama asked him what he was scared of, and the monk responded: “I was really afraid I wouldn’t feel compassion for my captors anymore.”
Psychologist Carolin Müller, who has studied Buddhist psychotherapy, said: “Can you imagine that? You’re tortured for many years but still feel compassion for the one who tortured you? After all he’d been through, [this monk could do this] because he put himself in the shoes of the other.
Perhaps such a scenario sounds ludicrously impossible. However, multiple experiences in the past few years have convinced me that this love and compassion truly does reside within every single one of us. I also know that the more people who remember this, the less violent and hateful our world will become.
So, how does one remember this love?
I say remember, because across the board, stories of people who have come into touch with this pervasive love describe it like remembering something they’d once known but had long since forgotten, that it’s something that has always been there. And this is where the “Direct Path” and “Progressive Path” come in. They’re methods of remembering this love. Features of the “Progressive Path” probably come to mind more readily when you think of spirituality–hours spent in cross-legged meditation, counting or following the breath, chanting “aum,” and eating a specific diet in between sessions of yoga. To quote a great resource on this topic:
Progressive paths start with a process of purification in which the (apparent) obstacles to realization of our true nature are gradually dissolved through meditation and other disciplines. This can take many years. Once an aspirant has achieved a certain level of purification, they are led to realization of their true nature through the guidance and living example of a realized teacher.
By contrast, the “Direct Path” does away with all the preparatory steps, guiding people straight to the heart of the matter. It also doesn’t worry about “purification,” which I think functions as an ego trap, which can lead some to view themselves as superior due to their “purity.” Such a belief is basically the exact opposite of loving connectedness, and thus, entirely misses the point.
The Direct Path starts right away with a simple process of self-enquiry that leads directly to the experiential understanding of our true nature. This initial step (sometimes known as enlightenment) is followed by a much longer stabilization process in which this understanding gradually permeates the way we think, feel, sense the body, perceive the world, and relate to others (who are no longer seen as ‘others’). Nowadays the Direct Path is regarded by many as a more efficient route than the traditional progressive paths and one that fits well with a 21st century culture and lifestyle.
“Wait a minute…” you might be thinking. “Isn’t this supposed to be a nutrition article?” Yes, so here’s the point of all this. It’s very easy for one to become caught up in the various steps of the “Progressive Path,” believing that, for example, one cannot find inner peace and love without doing the requisite amount of breath-counting, chanting, or meditation. But while all of these things can help, they are not necessary, and can even become obstacles.
I’ve come to view nutritional struggles in much the same way.
First, what’s the food consumption equivalent of “enlightenment?”
Let’s semi-jokingly call it “Nutrition Nirvana” since that’s nice and snappy and alliterative. I’d describe it as some combination of the following.
Food is largely a source of joy and fun, not one of guilt, shame, or anxiety, nor an abused coping mechanism used to avoid uncomfortable emotions. Those in “Nutrition Nirvana” don’t engage in punishingly restrictive diets or religiously count every calorie and macronutrient. Neither do they fret about a bit of body fat gained around the holidays. This isn’t because they no longer care about their health, but because they know exactly what to do in order to gain weight, lose weight, or maintain it. And, they feel confident in their ability to execute the necessary steps.
So, how does one attain this level of nutritional inner peace? Well, I won’t pretend to have all the answers, because I only consider myself to be about 80% of the way there. I still sometimes use tasty foods as a stress management tool and could definitely stand to cook more meals at home. But, if and when I have a compelling reason to make a physique change, I feel completely capable of achieving it. And friends and loved ones who have watched me shake my head in dumbfounded delight while at a restaurant know I derive an almost childlike joy from a quality meal.
So it saddens me to realize that for many, food choice is a source of distress, negativity, or numbness. And that was part of the impetus for creating this nutrition guide. I wanted to help people change a dysfunctional, combative relationship with food and with their bodies.
Too commonly, that’s the nature of the relationship many people have.
Earlier this year, I read an article from The Atlantic entitled, People Just Want To Lose Weight, which, typical of pieces from this publication, is quite well-written. But I disagree with its premise and tone entirely. The author starts by saying,
While exploring the diet app Noom recently, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be losing weight or healing my inner child. The program encourages you to banish “thought distortions” such as labeling foods “good” or “bad.” It assures you that slipups don’t mean failure, and nudges you to practice “joyful movement.” For the first week, all Noom asks you to do is “simply believe.”
And if this psychological approach fails, there’s always Ozempic.
But here’s the thing. Fixing your relationship with food is a great deal like “healing your inner child.” As I wrote a few weeks ago about the prevalence of nutrition struggles, from a young age we learn to eat the wrong foods in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Undoing decades of habitually eating calorie-rich, nutrient-poor foods way too quickly and when we feel uncomfortable emotions takes real work. There’s no magic pill to make all that go away…or magic injection.
Speaking of which, I wrote a piece earlier this year talking about how pairing Ozempic with nutritional habit coaching could be an incredible method for anyone aiming to lose more than 20% of their body weight. Some individuals’ unique hormone balance really does make losing body fat painfully, frustratingly difficult without a chemical intervention. However, if we expect the drug to do all of the work, we create a surefire recipe for weight regain once we stop using it.
If people don’t know about the necessity of this deeper work, or don’t want to hear it, they turn to a version of the “Nutritional Progressive Path.”
It says something like, “You must eat more of x and less of y in order to lose weight. Once you lose z number of pounds, you will be happy.” Forget that any increase in life satisfaction from losing weight would only be temporary, this belief errs in treating unwanted weight like an annoying headache. “Simply take your daily dose of kale or aspirin, and you’ll be cured!”
And yes, if someone wants to lose 20 pounds and can stomach eating only boiled chicken, steamed broccoli, and protein shakes until they get there, it will work.
But, even assuming they don’t grow so miserable along the way that they quit, then what? They have no idea how to eat to maintain this new weight, which means they’re more likely to gain it all back.
And, to bring us back to spirituality for a moment, just like with nearly every sect of nearly every religion, nutrition bursts at the seams with silly things to argue over. Diet didn’t work? Someone will gladly tell you that the real reason you didn’t lose weight is because you ate too many carbs and not enough polyphenols, or had too much seed oil and not enough natural sources of Omega-3’s. Just like those who bicker over the “correct” hand position or whether or not it’s acceptable to sit in a chair during meditation, all of this is missing the point.
Famous Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “A finger pointing at the moon is not
the moon. The finger is needed to know where to look for the moon, but if you mistake the finger for the moon itself, you will never know the real moon.”
He reminds us that pointers are just that, pointers. They have value, but shouldn’t be confused for “the thing” itself. And sometimes these pointers are incredibly helpful. For example, someone who consumes 500 calories per day in soda, Starbucks, and seltzers would benefit greatly from swapping all of those out for water. But, “drink only non-caloric beverages” is merely a pointer. Doing it won’t guarantee you reach your nutritional goals, even if you adhere to this principle with the discipline of a Zen monk. The same is true for every single diet, eating plan, or nutritional tip that labels some foods as “allowed” and others as “off limits.” Luckily, there is another way.
We can think of it as the “Nutritional Direct Path.”
This starts with a simple acknowledgment. “If I want to lose body fat and I have been unsuccessful, it is because I routinely do not consume fewer calories than my metabolism burns.” Now, before we go further, I want to make certain points crystal clear.
- This is a completely judgment-free statement of objectivity. It absolutely does not say, “I am a glutton,” “I am a bad person,” “I should do better,” or anything similar.
- The Nutritional Direct Path also does not require calorie counting as a weight-loss or weight-maintenance method. In fact, I recommend against that practice except in specific, short-term circumstances.
- This statement also should not ignore that some individuals were dealt a “rough hand” metabolically. Someone may have thyroid issues or other challenges that make achieving a caloric deficit more difficult. However, even if your metabolism genuinely only burns 1,000 calories per day, fat loss will be impossible if you eat 1,100.
With all of this understood, the reason this acknowledgement is the first step on the Nutritional Direct Path is because consistently achieving a caloric deficit is the only fat-loss method that is guaranteed to work if done correctly. Metabolism is an incredibly fluid, complex formula, but the laws of thermodynamics remain undefeated. Once you have accepted this, then you can start to work on deeply understanding yourself. You’ll then be better equipped to examine why, what, and how you eat, before taking steps to make all of these things effortlessly enjoyable. And if I’ve piqued your interest, read this guide for the exact actions you can take on the Nutritional Direct Path.
Finally, it must be understood that “Direct” does not mean “instantaneous.” This method of fat loss still takes work. But it’ll remove much of the superfluous distractions. The Direct Path allows you to focus on what is here and now in your immediate experience. Which eating schedule gives you the most energy? Which situations or emotions trigger you to reach for the Oreos even if you’re not truly physically hungry? What meal frequency works for you specifically, despite what conventional wisdom or the current fad says to do?
You have a list of 15 or more meals that you genuinely enjoy eating, that agree with your digestive system, and that keep you pleasantly full and satisfied for hours. You know which foods leave you prone to overeating, which situations and emotions trigger cravings, and what to do when that happens. You know how to plan your meals around your own optimal eating schedule, but you also know how to sit with hunger when these plans go awry. You don’t treat hunger or cravings as a five-alarm emergency that must be acted upon, right now. You also know you can disregard the thoughts that label foods as “good” or “bad,” or try to convince you to feel guilty when you indulge. Sounds nice, right?
If all of this were the case, your nutritional struggles would basically be over, wouldn’t they? You’d be at peace. When it comes to food, at least. And that sense of peace is why I favor the Nutritional Direct Path with those I help. Knowing all of these things about yourself and mastering the appropriate skills accomplishes two vital ends. First, it gives you the confidence to make any sort of physique change. Second, and even more importantly, it makes “maintenance mode” easy.
I can’t overstate how much that matters. If you had a truly personal, optimized weight-maintenance plan, you could probably even get away with eating nothing but chicken, broccoli, and protein shakes for months without worrying about weight regain once your eating returned to normal. That’s because you could effortlessly slip into your ideal maintenance mode once you’d reached your goal weight.
But instead, most people don’t have maintenance mode dialed in, which is why they gained the weight that led them to seek a trendy diet in the first place. Then, once they decide to make a change, they focus exclusively on the steps they can take to lose weight, to the point where their mental and physical resources are expended by the time they reach their goal or give up in frustration. No wonder so many people hate nutrition!
But luckily, the best part about the Direct Path, nutrition or spiritual, is that it requires no prior experience. It simply requires a curiosity to look at yourself, a willingness to ruthlessly examine your beliefs, and a radical level of honesty about what you find.
Add those together, sprinkle in a dash of patience and openness, and you’ve got a recipe for peace.
If you want to know more about exactly how to get started on the “Nutritional Direct Path,” download the Understanding Yourself Nutrition Guide, right here. And before you go, I’d love to hear from you. Have you tried something like the Nutritional Direct Path before, or have you mostly stuck to the traditional “Progressive Path?” Reply to this email and let me know!