Why Diets and Exercises Don’t Always Work

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Body Weight and Calorie Intake

There was a time when I used to eat a lot—up to four times a day. And yet I was very thin. Then came a time when I did not increase my food intake, and yet I gained a lot of weight. Then there have been times when I ate only once a day, but I did not lose weight. Finally, there have been times when my weight increased despite a reduction in food. What is the relation between food intake and body weight? Why is body weight not consistently correlated to food intake?

Some scientists say that there is a part of the brain that sets the body weight, which is why many dieters cannot lose weight. But if that is the case, then where is the pill that you can pop into your mouth, and it will adjust the weight dial in the brain, and help you attain your desired weight? If such a thing were true, then drug companies would be racing to find a drug. The fact that such a pill doesn’t exist means that scientists don’t know how the body gains weight.

But since some dieters have lost weight, they make a business by extolling their method to others. They earn a lot of money, but they are not required to provide any scientific evidence that their method works. Anyone who has practiced these diets can tell you: Most of these programs do not work. But people are so desperate to lose weight that they keep trying. Many people go to the gym for a workout; the gym instructor tells them: Eat these proteins and follow this diet and you will get a sculpted body. It works for some people and it doesn’t for others. It works sometimes and not at other times. It works more for some than for others.

Those who fail in these endeavors of weight gain and loss, feel ashamed to talk about it. But those who are successful, cannot stop gloating about it. Thus, a misconception about diet and exercise is created in the minds of most people. Everyone believes that weight gain is related to calorie intake, and weight loss to calorie outgo. If only these things were so simple, then there would be no problem. Therefore, in this article, I will discuss the complicated process of bodily growth, and the role that diet and exercise play in it. This understanding is not exclusively based on calorie intake and outgo, as you can tell from the above discussion. However, it is not totally independent of the calorie intake and outgo either.

Calorie Intake vs. Satkāryavāda

Modern theories about weight gain and loss are based on a physical conception of the body: You add energy into the body and it gains weight; when you work out, you spend that energy and it loses weight. These doctrines are based on a classical physical conception of energy transfer or movement. Thereby, the body is like a battery: You charge the battery by eating, and you drain it by working.

All these ideas about energy transfer are rejected in Satkāryavāda, where the body exists in an unmanifest form, and it is manifest due to its association with the environment. That environment can be food, exercise, culture, social interactions, and so on. However, for the environment to manifest that unmanifest state, an unmanifest state must exist prior. If that unmanifest state exists, then diet and exercise can manifest another body that is lighter or heavier. However, if that unmanifest state doesn’t exist, then no matter what we do, we cannot manifest a different body. Hence, diet and exercise can work sometimes for some people, but not for everyone all the time. This is because the bodies that we are seeing are being pulled out of a “bag” of bodies by association with an environment.

The “bag” itself is not always fully accessible. Rather, as time passes, different parts of the bag become more or less accessible. Hence, childhood activities are naturally done during childhood and youthful activities are naturally done during youth.

The Nature of Association

To understand causation by association, we have to understand how the company of a depressed person makes us depressed and the company of a happy person makes us happy. This association is called sanga. Lord Krishna describes the effects of this sanga in Bhagavad-Gita 2.62, which states the following:

dhyāyato viṣayān puṁsaḥ
saṅgas teṣūpajāyate
saṅgāt sañjāyate kāmaḥ
kāmāt krodho ’bhijāyate

By contemplating the objects of the senses, an association is developed. From that association, desire is born. From that desire, anger is born.

Desire and anger are created within us, but they are triggered by external circumstances. When we associate with those circumstances, a channel of communication between source and destination is established. That channel is sometimes called “attachment”. Hence, sanga can be translated as “association” or “attachment”. The key point, however, is that this arises due to the contemplation of objects. If we can stop that contemplation, then the association or attachment will not happen. In short, the causes are not acting deterministically.

The senses and the mind are not confined to our brain or body; rather the senses and the mind move into objects. You can think of the senses or the mind like a probe that measures these objects like a thermometer measures temperature. Thus perception is always caused by an interaction between senses and their objects. The sensual movement is inward and outward. It can also be upward and downward. Thereby, there is no “action at a distance”—as Newton’s theory of gravitation states. There is always an action by a contact. If we stop the sense and mind movement, then we will not perceive the world. This is described in the Bhagavad-Gita 2.58: “One who is able to withdraw his senses from sense objects, as the tortoise draws its limbs within the shell, is firmly fixed in perfect consciousness.” (The emphasis is mine).

If there is no lust in us, then the external situation cannot trigger it. If there is no anger or fear in us, then the external situation cannot trigger it. So, when lust, anger, fear, etc. are triggered in us, it is because they are already within us. The external situation is just a trigger, not the sole cause of that manifestation. The process of triggering anger, greed, lust, fear, etc. is called sanga or association with the world.

The World is Inside and Outside

When we interact with the world, we get a picture of the world in the senses and the mind. That picture is just like the world, and yet, it is not the world. For instance, if you see an apple, then there is a picture of the apple in your mind and senses, but that picture is not the apple. Since there is a picture in our minds, therefore, the apple is inside us. But since the picture is not the apple, therefore, the apple is outside us.

If the picture and the apple were not identical, then our perception would be a hallucination. But if they were identical, then there would be no external world, and everything would still be a hallucination. Therefore, to avoid the problem of hallucination (which arises very early in any epistemology based upon empiricism) we need to invoke the principle of Bhedābheda—simultaneous oneness and difference—to understand how perception creates knowledge: The apple inside and the apple outside are simultaneously one and different.

When we add the triggering of pictures by association, then we can say that the pictures are potentials in our senses and the mind. By the association with an environment, one such potential is selected. The environment triggers a potential in us, without a transfer of energy.

This is extremely important for a theory of observation because we have to be able to say that we do not change the reality in the process of observing it. All transfer-of-energy models of perception require that reality be changed in the process of observing it because energy is removed from an entity in order to perceive it. Thus, all theories of observation based on the transfer of energy are flawed empiricism. Only the association model of observation can give us perfect knowledge, because the reality is not changed in the process of observing it.

It is well-known that dogs are color blind. Even when the objects are colored, they do not trigger the color in the dog’s senses. That color-blindness means that the dog’s senses do not contain the potential for color. Hence, even while associating with things with color, the senses do not trigger the sensation of color because the potential is not in the bag. The same model applies to the body; all bodies cannot manifest the same effects when subjected to the same circumstances, because those effects are not latent, unmanifest, or dormant in all bodies.

How Eating Creates Bodily Growth

Once we understand the difference between the transfer of energy and association models of causation, then we can apply them to the process of eating food. Modern science will say that when we eat food, some energy is transferred into the body. But in the association model, the food will trigger a new potential that was already latent. By such triggering, a new body can be manifest. However, what the body will be depends on what types of bodies are presently dormant or unmanifest. We cannot trigger or manifest a body that is never in the “bag” of unmanifest bodies. As a result, some eating can make us fat, other eating can make us thin, some eating will keep things unchanged, some eating can make the upper half of the body fat while thinning the lower half, and there are infinite such possibilities.

Nature vs. Nurture

The “bag” of unmanifest bodies is nature, and the circumstances that trigger or manifest one such body out of the “bag” is nurture. This nurture includes diet, exercise, friends, family, society, and so on. Nature alone is insufficient because nurture often triggers a certain nature. Likewise, nurture alone is insufficient because there has to be a “bag” of possibilities from which to manifest one possibility.

The nature-nurture interaction involves two factors—desiring and deserving, or guna and karma. By our desire, we can choose to diet or exercise, but that will not consistently produce the same effects in all bodies, because nature can be different. Then, due to limitations of deserving, we may not get a certain type of diet or exercise. Finally, we can manifest something from the “bag” of possibilities simply by desiring! For example, we can control hunger, thirst, or even bodily growth by our desire.

Vedic texts describe how many sages, demigods, and demons are able to take on different bodily forms. That is due to their power to manifest a certain hidden possibility from the “bag”. This requires the capacity to increase the bag size, and use the power of choice to select something from the bag. And this power is created when one develops the capacity to control hunger, thirst, lust, and so forth.

Basically, by learning how to control the manifestation from the bag, one also develops the power to expand or contract the bag. The four Kumaras for instance never get old; they are always 4-year-old boys. They have constrained the bag to one possibility. Then, there was Rishi Kindama who knew how to take on the body of a deer in order to mate with his wife. When Pāndū killed the deer, Rishi Kindama cursed Pāndū to die if he were to ever mate with his wife (which came true eventually). Thereby, Rishi Kindama had learned how to expand the bag of possibilities to a larger set including a deer.

It is possible to halt bodily growth—i.e., going from childhood to youth to old age—by stopping the movement of consciousness. The yogis learn to concentrate their consciousness and by that process, they stop the process of aging. Likewise, by the same concentration, one can stop hunger, thirst, lust, or sleep. And it is possible to increase the hunger, thirst, lust, and sleep so much that one can go on enjoying almost limitlessly and endlessly.

For most people on earth, a body is manifest due to circumstances, which is the interaction of nature and nurture, or guna and karma. Then, for some advanced personalities, a different body can be manifest simply by will. Likewise, the manifestation of the body can be arrested by conscious control.

Eating vs. Tasting

Lord Krishna is offered food in thousands of temples around the clock, and yet, He doesn’t become fat! In the spiritual world too, devotees of the Lord taste prasāda, and yet they don’t become fat. This is because there is a difference between eating and tasting. The process of tasting is just an association of the senses with their objects; a taste is triggered because it was a potentiality in the tongue. However, by the simple principle that a system is not disturbed or altered during an observation, the food need not be changed or destroyed by our tasting. Hence, if all enjoyment is restricted to perception, then food can remain intact, even though we are tasting it. Then, you can “eat” your cake and have it too!

The material body, however, doesn’t always operate on this principle. In our body, by the association with a demigod called Agni, hunger is created. Then, when we consume food, that hunger is satiated. However, in the process, the food is also transformed. That transformation follows the same principles of Satkāryavāda: The food is a “bag” of possibilities, when the food triggers the potentiality of satiation in our body, our body triggers the potentiality for a different state of the food, latent in the food.

Thereby a distinction between tasting and eating is created: Tasting is unidirectional Satkāryavāda and eating is bidirectional Satkāryavāda. In general, sense perception is unidirectional Satkāryavāda, which means that the system is not disturbed or changed during observation, which allows us to correctly perceive the nature of things. However, many things—e.g., eating food—are bidirectional Satkāryavāda,, which means that when we taste food, the food is automatically transformed in some ways.

Unidirectional vs. Bidirectional Satkāryavāda

Thereby, there are two ways of offering food to the Lord. If we offer food to the deity, the Lord looks at the food, and He tastes it. This tasting requires the Lord’s senses to come into contact with the food, and by the contact of His tongue with the food, the food gets an additional flavor. That addition of flavor, however, doesn’t destroy the food. Conversely, when food is offered into Agni or ritual fire during a sacrifice, then the food is tasted by the Lord and transformed akin to us eating the food. In the former case, we can apply the unidirectional Satkāryavāda (for the time being disregarding the addition of flavor to the food by the Lord’s tongue), and in the latter, we must use bidirectional Satkāryavāda.

This bidirectional Satkāryavāda leads to all the laws of nature in the sense that we now start speaking about action and reaction, how one change is correlated to another change. When we observe such changes consistently, then we formulate “laws of nature”—i.e., it always happens in this way. To explain these laws, modern science formulates the idea of calorie intake or energy transfer. However, the fact is that even if we do so, we can never explain why a body doesn’t become fat even after eating, why the body becomes fat even with less eating, why the body can change without eating, and so forth.

All these things can be understood if we use Satkāryavāda. We need Satkāryavāda to say that the world can be known perfectly by sense perception. Without Satkāryavāda, we don’t have empiricism, because the world is always disturbed in the process of observing it. So, even if two changes are correlated, the same principle has to be used, although it is bidirectional rather than unidirectional Satkāryavāda.

Laws of Material Science

All the laws of physics and chemistry are imperfect emulations of bidirectional Satkāryavāda. There is indeed a cause and effect, action and reaction. However, we cannot accurately model it using physical models of causation because (a) a cause triggers an effect by association, (b) that effect is not uniform because only the latent states are manifest, (c) those latent states can expand or contract, so the laws are not uniform everywhere, (d) sometimes an effect can be created in the unidirectional model which would be called “spontaneous” change rather than change triggered by a cause.

Hence, some people can lose weight due to diet, but everyone will not lose weight upon dieting, different people may lose weight to different extents, loss in weight can be accompanied by many other effects beyond just weight loss, and sometimes you just lose weight spontaneously without diet.

All these problems are pervasive in the physics and chemistry of sufficiently complex systems. Nobody can formulate universal laws when a system becomes sufficiently complex because there are so many exceptions to the laws. As more exceptions are detected, modern science changes tack from theory to experiment. That means that you are always testing and experimenting to find the actual effect rather than relying on theories to predict the effects. That testing is very expensive, whereas the theory—if it were correct—would be very cheap. But since there is no good theory, therefore, a lot of tests and experiments have to be done to figure out if something even works. But instead of acknowledging the failure of theory and the absence of predictability, science extolls its empirical successes.

Illustration of the Problem in Medicine

The fact is that even these empirical results are so flawed that every drug manufacturer lists dozens of side effects of the drugs because they are never able to take into account the nature of the patient; they always rely on energy transfer theories. In Ayurveda, a drug is administered after considering a patient’s nature or Prakriti, which means that there are different medicines for the same symptoms based on the different nature or Prakriti of the patient. Ayurveda medicines don’t have side effects—if you take into account the patient’s Prakriti. However, because the understanding of Prakriti and Satkāryavāda have deteriorated, therefore, so many Ayurveda physicians prescribe drugs based on symptoms, rather than an understanding of the patient’s Prakriti. Effectively, all these Ayurveda physicians have transformed themselves into something similar to modern physicians which rely almost exclusively on nurture rather than nature plus nurture to cure an illness.

A good example of this problem is that drug approval agencies want to subject Ayurveda medicines to “clinical trials” in which a random selection of patients with certain symptoms are treated with a drug. The thing common between these patients is their symptoms. Their nature or Prakriti is disregarded. The results of these tests are quite like the effects of diet and exercise on people—they work sometimes and not at other times. Then the clinical trial is supposed to have failed and the drug is rejected. By subjecting Ayurveda to the same lens of material causation as used in modern medicine, all these clinical trials basically bring down the efficacy of Ayurveda treatments. Even Ayurveda physicians do not protest these clinical trials because they don’t understand the alternative foundations of causation. They think of Ayurveda drugs in the same way as modern drugs, even though Ayurveda clearly states that the drug has to be applied only on patients with a certain nature or Prakriti. They always want to think of drugs as nurture, disregarding the nature of the patient taking the drug.

Now, some people will say: Medicine accounts for a patient’s nature by studying their DNA. This is not at all true, because doctors prescribe drugs without doing gene sequencing. However, even if genes were sequenced, there are serious issues in considering the impact of drugs on a body of certain genes due to the problem of gene expression: The gene is like a set of possibilities in a bag, and one such possibility is selected by the environment. This selection is called epigenetics. So, each person is unique because certain genes are not expressed, some of them are expressed more than others, and sometimes, the interaction of different gene expressions causes many problems.

Modern science invents so-called laws of nature based on the ideology of energy transfer. This ideology is rooted in the idea that the body grows by eating food. Only the problem is that the body doesn’t grow uniformly by eating food. Some children grow very tall while others remain short, even though they might be eating the same amount of food. Some children remain thin while others grow very fat. You can blame that on genes, but all genes are not always expressed. So, even if you have a gene, you must still test against a particular combination of genes expressed to know if the drug will work. That would make each drug so expensive that medicine would be economically unviable.

Quality Foundations of Natural Laws

All the laws of modern physics and chemistry are false. There is not a single correct law, because there are so many exceptions to each law. That doesn’t mean that nature is not lawful. It is lawful but based on a science of hidden and manifest qualities, in which different qualities are hidden or manifest due to associations, and the laws pertain to which associations will manifest or hide which qualities.

This science is contiguous with the other science of mantra chanting to invite demigods to manifest or hide qualities. As we have discussed, conscious choices can also manifest qualities or hide them. So, the general prescription is to use food and medicine to cure problems. But if that is not working, then you can practice yoga and if you develop the power, then you can manifest things by your willpower. But if things are still not working, then you can request demigods to manifest or hide qualities. However, even demigods cannot fix all problems; old age and death are counterexamples; they are also not allowed to fix all problems at all times. Demigods can fix a problem when a certain type of karma is already manifesting, and it can be revectored into fixing a problem. This karma is like currency; you can spend your money on one thing vs. another. Thereby, you lose some benefits, to gain others. Ultimately, only the Supreme Lord is capable of fixing all problems, but He doesn’t fix them unless the soul has given up its bad attitudes. Suffering is the means by which attitudes are fixed. Sāñkhya Sūtra explains that if the Lord were to start fixing all problems, then He would be considered biased and deceived by the offering of flattery.

Thus a hierarchy of sciences exists. In this hierarchy, the lowest level of science is quality associations to manifest or hide some qualities. But there are exceptions to this, therefore, there is another science of yoga practice. However, since there are exceptions to these, therefore, there is a science of demigod worship. But since there are exceptions to that too, so there is the worship of the Supreme Lord. However, since the Lord doesn’t want to solve all our problems, there are exceptions to that too. Ultimately, there is only one perfect science, which is the science of devotion to the Lord, which has no exceptions. Others are perfect to different extents, but not completely perfect.

To the extent that even lower sciences work much better than sciences based on the false ideas of energy transfer (push and pull), and these sciences naturally lead to a progression in the higher levels of scientific understanding of nature, therefore, they are much better than atheistic science. The quality science—even when it doesn’t invoke the existence of demigods and God—is far superior. But because it has shortcomings, therefore, the demigod science is better. Then the science of the Supreme Lord is supreme. In this way, the Vedic system climbed the ladder allowing people to use different kinds of sciences, for different purposes, always reinforcing a path of gradual upliftment.

The Process of the Soul’s Transmigration

Bhagavad-Gita 2.13 states: dehino ’smin yathā dehe kaumāraṁ yauvanaṁ jarā. The term dehe is the 7th declension of deha, which means “in the body”. Thereby, this verse is translated as: “As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.” (The emphasis is mine).

We cannot understand this verse unless we use two meanings of the “body”: (a) there is a bag of bodies which includes the boyhood, youth, and old age bodies, which lie unmanifest at birth and are manifest successively and (b) each of the bodies called boyhood, youth, and old age are different bodies. Due to the first meaning, our entire life is a single body, because it is a fixed bag of bodies. Due to the second meaning, the body is constantly changing. Then, transmigration is a movement to another bag of bodies. Therefore, the above verse can be translated technically as follows: “Just as the soul moves within a bag of bodies in this life, similarly, the soul moves to another bag of bodies at the end of this life”. Thereby, there are two movements: (a) within the bag of bodies, and (b) from one bag of bodies to another.

We must also remember that everything in the bag of bodies is not accessible always. Time makes certain things more or less accessible. Thereby, our entire life is just one body. Then, due to the passing of time, certain things become more or less accessible, therefore, the body changes due to time. Finally, we can select things within the accessible set of bodies, and that is called our bodily activity. Due to these activities, the bag can also evolve; e.g., practice makes a person more capable. Thus, by our will, we pick different activities within the bag, and by that process the bag improves, permitting us new kinds of activities. This is the basic process of the transmigration of the soul.

Many people are born with a bag of bodies incapable of austerities, philosophical knowledge, or spiritual practice. Vālmīkī for instance was incapable of uttering the word Rāma, but he could utter the word Marā (death). Therefore, Sage Nārada prescribed a unique method for him: Just chant Marā-Marā-Marā-Marā. Then there are constraints of circumstances. Some people are born in communist countries where it is impossible to get spiritual knowledge. Finally, some people lack the desire, even though the bag and circumstances permit it.

Since the bag is constrained at birth, therefore, the Vedic system prescribes many methods for advancement; each method is well-suited to some type of body. Similarly, there are divisions of society into the four classes called Varṇāśrama based on the fixation of the bag at the time of birth. By such practices, the bag itself can be changed. The yogic practices noted earlier are examples. But if we don’t do anything to change that bag, then there is a sense in which each person has a “destiny”. However, due to our willpower, we can pick things within that bag, hence, there is also free will. By that free will, we can change our destiny in this life, and the next body—the new bag of bodies.

In this way, (a) the bag of bodies constrains us, (b) there is free will to move within the bag, (c) by such movement, we can emphasize certain possibilities, and (d) by such choice we can change the bag itself (either in this life or at the end of life, where we get a new bag).

Why Determinism Seems Real

Even though we can choose something from a bag, our past habits force us to choose in old ways. Then there are even deeper reasons due to which our choices are constrained by māyā, through two agencies called prakṣepātmikā and āvaraṇātmikā as discussed here. Similarly, as noted above, time constraints the current possibilities. Then, due to karma, we are forced by circumstances. If we take into account all these factors that compel us, then we see why life seems so deterministic: We are forced by our limitations, by the circumstance, and even our desires are being forced upon us by material nature. Due to this determinism, in theory, it is possible to draw a long-term trajectory of the soul conditioned by material influences who has practically lost its free will. It is much harder to do that for an elevated soul.

Therefore, any spiritual process is a constant struggle against our own inabilities, circumstances, and desires forced by nature. The more a person can fight, the faster they can progress. By such struggle, we exercise our free will, and then we see why determinism is unreal.

Thus, those who exercise free will frequently are convinced that such a thing exists. But those who don’t, are not convinced. As the saying goes: If you don’t use it, you lose it. By not struggling against material tendencies, we lose the willpower to struggle. The ability to struggle is always there, but due to the absence of conviction, and the unwillingness to bear pain and distress, the willpower is practically lost.

Then, scientists misinterpret determinism in a way incompatible with the possibility of free will. That misinterpretation is energy transfer, push and pull. Unless we gain some freedom from determinism by our struggle against the forces of nature that control us from inside and outside, we cannot conceive of free will, and we cannot conceive of a determinism compatible with the possibility of free will. Hence, the advancement of science depends on the advancement of people. If people can advance, then they can see how free will can counter determinism, and yet, most people are moving deterministically because they have lost their willpower due to the inability to struggle against the material nature. Since they are indeed controlled from inside and outside, therefore, they think that there is only determinism.

If people do not use their free will, then science will always remain incomplete and frustrating. For example, we will not be able to explain why diets and exercises work for some people and not for others. This too is a failure of the determinism of science. However, if we obtain a spiritual understanding, then we can explain the failures of scientific determinism and yet why most people are living deterministically.

The Science of Bhagavad-Gita

Most of this article is based on just three verses in the Bhagavad-Gita: 2.13 (soul’s transmigration), 2.58 (senses and mind moving inward and outward), and 2.62 (impressions triggered by association). I have supplanted these by using Satkāryavāda and examples from other texts, but these are not necessary. The conclusions derived from these few verses are further confirmed in other parts of Bhagavad-Gita—e.g., (a) material energy is inferior, (b) material energy is divine, (c) everything is done by material energy so it is active, (d) the material energy is three qualities, (e) these qualities then combine and divide to produce many things, and (f) the soul has the choice to change its life by yoga.

If we study the words of Lord Krishna deeply, then we can understand how nature is scientifically described in a very different way than in modern science. Bhagavad-Gita is giving us a perfect understanding of the body, how the soul is moving in the body, and from one body to another, and how this movement can be changed and stopped. If we don’t understand this science of Bhagavad-Gita and keep chasing other so-called science based on energy transfer, push and pull, etc. then we will never understand even simple things like diet and exercise.

If we keep insisting that Bhagavad-Gita is not science but religion, then we haven’t studied Bhagavad-Gita. Even if we understand one verse perfectly, then we can understand so many things. If we just understand the 2nd chapter of Bhagavad-Gita, then we can understand all the scientific principles of nature and life. There is so much to gain from this study, however, it needs a strong effort from our end.

Cite this article as:

Ashish Dalela, "Why Diets and Exercises Don’t Always Work," in Shabda Journal, January 11, 2022, https://journal.shabda.co/2022/01/11/why-diets-and-exercises-dont-always-work/.