Mostly those things, in addition to being instrumentally valuable in terms of health and stress reduction, are also valuable for their own sake. It’s just plain good to spend time with friends and appreciate joy in the world.
But I confess that in addition to the things that I want more of in my life, I’ve also been eating a lot of delicious food. Delicious food also is good for its own sake. But I’ve been eating more of it than I like, on reflection, and I haven’t fully appreciated a lot of it. I’ve been eating for comfort, not joy.
Now I’m a defender of eating for comfort. It’s not the worst thing you can do. (For me, and for lots of people, alcohol might be worse. There is also a lot being written right now about drinking one’s way through the next four years. I’ll pass on that.)
Food serves a lot of purposes besides nutrition. My blog post which defends eating to relieve stress is also about what I cooked on the US election night. That post seems sad and naive now. I thought it was going to be a stressful evening but that it would all end okay. I confess too that when things started to go bad, I found refuge in sleep. “Wake me when Hilary wins,” I said to Jeff, before drifting off.
In an interview in the New York Times TV producer, director and writer Judd Apatow talks about stress eating and gaining weight. He says, “Most of us are just scared and eating ice cream.” Me too. Salted caramel ice cream is this year’s favourite. Sometimes I worry I am going to associate the flavour with Trump trauma.
In another New York Times piece called Trump Made Me Eat It, Joyce Wadler writes that her Greenwich Village Weight Watchers group is talking lots about Trump weight. Trump tweets, she writes, and instead of your usual low cal yogurt you find yourself reaching for a chocolate croissant.
Barbra Streisand is also tweeting about Trump and food. “Donald Trump is making me gain weight. I start the day with liquids, but after the morning news, I eat pancakes smothered in maple syrup!” the singer tweeted.
Oh, and just in time, a new study seems to show a link between stress, elevated hormones, and obesity. However, the researchers note that they aren’t really sure about cause and effect. After all, in a fat phobic society it might make sense that larger people are stressed out by attitudes towards their bodies. That is, being fat might be stressful (duh!) rather than stress causing overweight.
In all of this, I don’t mean to trivialize politics. Or to make this all about healthy eating. Or even to criticize eating as a way of relieving stress. But I am interested in the choices we make in hard times. What fuels us to engage politically? What choices support our active, politically and otherwise, lifestyles?
How about you? Are you making your usual food choices in these tough months? What’s your plan for eating in the time of Trump?
This week I was on my much-heralded southwest family vacation with my sister and her three kids (11, 13, 16). I posted last week about my plans for compromising about activity levels. I was interested in hiking but know that my sister and family are not very outdoorsy, so I came up with a variety of plans for novice- friendly walks and swims. I also scoped out restaurants with healthy-to-me but varied options for us.
What was that saying about the best laid schemes of mice and men? I forget. Suffice it to say, things did not go according to plan. However, I learned an incredibly important lesson about eating and self-care.
Mindful eating can happen anywhere.
Even on a family vacation.
Even at a humongous Las Vegas buffet.
In case you’re not familiar with this Las Vegas institution, here’s what it looks like.
These buffets feature acres of largely calorie-dense foods, and are jam-packed with comforting and filling treats from a variety of cuisines. Variety is the key: from Chinese BBQ pork buns to fried chicken and waffles to spinach ravioli to prime rib, you have to experience it to believe it.
Honestly, I approached the buffet with dread. It was not my idea. My nephews had been talking about going to a buffet for weeks and were really looking forward to it, so there was no way out of it for me. And I was worried about how I would feel about it. For weeks, I’ve been focusing on healthy-to-me foods, meditation, slower and undistracted eating, one bite at a time. That’s clearly not happening here. But once we got there, I looked around me, noticing what was going on.
My sister’s kids were in hog heaven (forgive the term), joyously trying dish after dish and eagerly reporting on them. They loved the independence of selecting their own favorite foods, sometimes stretching the boundaries of their tastes, but always with the security of their favorites close by. My sister indulged her pan-Asian food interests with dumplings, pho, and spicy seafood.
As I watched them, I saw that they were fully engaged in uninhibited eating. They were tasting, gobbling, dipping, slurping, and chomping, loving every minute of it.
If that’s not mindful and engaged eating, then I don’t know what is.
I looked around to see what foods struck me. I went for a lamb chop, shrimp, braised short ribs, and exotic greens. And also some pho and dumplings. I tried to be aware of my levels of fullness and accept that over fullness was likely to happen, which it did. But, as feelings are wont to do, it passed.
One feeling that didn’t occur, though, was shame. I didn’t castigate myself for not limiting myself to broiled salmon and salad. I let myself wander amidst the vast array of foods, select what happened to appeal to me, and eat it with appreciation of the (admittedly odd) experience and context of being in the presence of bordering-on-grotesque abundance of food.
Mindful eating doesn’t equal ” healthy” eating. It’s different. I found it useful to focus on my feelings about the food I was eating, no matter what it was. It was interesting to work on practicing self observation without judgment, compassion for myself, and compassion and respect for others.
Radical acceptance is not easy, but a good thing. Still, I do maintain that Nutella crepes are too dangerous a substance to be sold without a special permit.
I was pretty pumped on Tuesday this week when my doctor turned to me and said my blood pressure was great and I should stop taking meds altogether. If you missed all the excitement you can read about my initial high blood pressure diagnosis and my follow-up ponderings only four short months ago.
So how does one go from 156/118 to this sweet, sweet moment?
I’d love to tell you it was a radical shift in my eating or a renewed sense of focus on working out. It wasn’t those things, although I’m sure it has helped. It was me feeling actually quite unwell and I had given up hope. On some level I was pretty sure I was going to die of a heart attack or stroke and part of me was ok with having that happen.
So, pure, unadultered terror is what finally got me to confront my overeating. I don’t recommend this approach, it is, as the cool kids say, like way no fun. My beloved was scared, we fought for about 2 months about seemingly everything. We purged the house of alcohol because I knew if I stumbled on the overeating the next choice on the list of external self soothing was booze. I constantly questioned my ability to be able to address this longstanding problem.
If I think carefully I can remember disordered eating as young as 10 years old, hiding food, eating until I could burst and always needing more. I’m 39, that’s a long time of behaving one way so this newfound sense of clarity about how I have used food to cope is a bit strange. My therapist pointed out that by choosing to volunteer at the Kincardine Race I was perhaps, for the first time, honestly participating. I wasn’t pretending I could do it all, that I was fat and fit. For some folks that may be the case but my body was telling me I needed to change, my blood pressure was off and I wasn’t feeling well.
My first goal was to simply be mindful when eating and that has had a tremendous impact. This one choice lead to a 18 pound weight loss over 4 months, just a little more than 6% change in mass, as I try to come to terms with the underlying causes of my overeating. My physician tells me this has taken the pressure off my system. I will stay mindful and see where I level off weight and blood pressure wise.
Feminism has served me well for many years and it continues to help me frame my experiences in meaningful ways. It’s not lost on me that part of my overeating is to keep straight, cys-gendered men away from me. There isn’t a single year I can think of where I wasn’t at least once sexually harassed by men since I hit puberty, not one year free of this in 30 years. While I know, intellectually, I do nothing to warrant this my emotions turn this inward in awful ways and I have deep shame around my body and my sexuality.
So I keep going to my therapist, as she guides me through this journey to know myself, my most undiscovered country, because I am worth knowing and I want to live. I really do and that is kind of amazing, to have rediscovered hope, to be empowered to end the war with myself.
A new thought repeats itself when as I gain insight “when the sleeper awakens”. I remember H.G. Well’s character awakens to the horror and the awesomeness around him. His quest to cure insomnia causes him to drug himself asleep for 203 years. I have missed out on fully appreciating what is great in my life by not addressing what isn’t working for me, I was asleep and now I am awakening to what others have always told me, I’m smart, capable and worth the effort of changing.
Good thing I have another 60 years or so to go because it feels like I’m ready for a great leap forward.
Natalie is a quirky woman who is learning to revel in her eccentricities and celebrating the uniqueness in others. She does some caregiving to her teenage minions, some paid work and tries to remember what a gift her beloved of 19 years is even if he is a lean, fast responder type with a high baseline. She’s trying to be a better cyclist and insists that the contact between her saddle and her bits is consensual. She may have to invest in something other than her 1960s bike but she is awful stingy.
Life has been a whirlwind since I was diagnosed with high blood pressure back in April and I griped about my feelings here and got some great resources from readers/friends/family.
I am learning to reign in my charming, yet not so good for my health, A Type personality and to be mindful of tension in my body. The good news, I’m making headway, so much so that after 6 weeks of blood pressure medication my doctor halved the prescription as I had lost 14 lbs and my blood pressure was too low at 107/72. This is good news. It means my arteries have not yet hardened, that my blood pressure responds to medication/weight loss and that I can prevent further damage to my circulatory system.
I’ve been seeing my psychologist and doing some grueling trauma work has helped me self-regulate and reduce my overeating without it feeling like an imposition or taking much effort at all. The biggest change for me since my post in April is that I am now confident I can make the changes I need to be healthier and keep my blood pressure where it needs to be for me to have the long life I want.
It’s all on the table, from eating my weeds in dandelion salad (they are called piss-en-lit in French because of their diuretic properties) to turning off the big overhead light at work to using biodots. Have you ever heard of biodots?
I once attended this really great time management seminar about 7 years ago with Harold Taylor and one strategy for time management was to live a long, healthy life and address stress. He offered us this tool, a tiny black sticker:
It works like the mood rings of old, the colour changes based on your skin temperature. When you are tense blood leaves your extremities so the dot goes brown to black. At home the dot is usually a deep blue, I’m so chill in my garden or with my family, at work brown and black rule my day. I’m mindful to relax and take a deep breath and the dot changes colour. Part of the success in the biodots in helping me is that it is a mnemonic for mindfulness. I put it on and it reminds me to check what’s going on with my body and thoughts. I feel more in control when I have good information about what’s going on and I’ve been able to have a scale in the house without going all obsessive about weighing myself.
The one downside is that with all this rapidly changing blood pressure I’ve been too light headed to work out. I have to let go of racing in the Kincardine Triathlon this July with Sam and Tracy. I’m going with a friend and will cheer all of them on though, and that should be good fun. 🙂
So if i trust my body, but not 100%, what can I do to steer me, in a non restrictive way, to better food choices?
I’m interested in hacks, that is, in quick and unexpected fixes for hard problems.
Mostly what I’m interested in are changes in environment that influence choice. Cass Sunstein in his book Nudge outlines a variety of ways in which structuring choice situations differently leads people to better choices (as judged by their own lights) without making rules that govern behavior. You can read about Sunstein’s libertarian paternalism here.
Here is a great example from that book, one which actually concerns nutritional choices. The study concerned people selecting food from a self serve cafeteria. The intervention was intended to get people to choose more fruits and vegetables without coercive measures. All that researchers did was change the order of the food being selected. Putting fruits and vegetables first meant that people chose them and left less room on their plates and trays for processed alternatives.
What changes in our lives can we make that are ‘nudge’ like? I’m not talking about restrictions. Calorie restricted diets don’t interest me and I’m not convinced they work. Instead, I’m interested in environmental approaches that change the choice scenario.
We were chatting about environmental changes lots at the implicit bias conference I was attending on the weekend. One slogan, used by a social psychologist, caught my ear: automate, don’t ruminate. Make good choices easy and automatic. Setting yourself up to think too much is more likely to lead to failure.
We know this of course from the literature on habit. I’ve written here about how good habits are key to change. So it’s not about harsh rules and struggles, deep thought and massive amounts of will power.
But what sorts of changes might we made regarding nutritional choices?
Precision Nutrition has a number of habits they encourage people to establish. Eating when hungry, eating slowly, eating to 80% full, eating protein, vegetables and healthy fats with every meal, choosing better carbs.
Like the cafeteria example, we might think in terms of eating veggies first. Some people recommend eating vegetable soup before each meal. That sounds tedious to me but I do eat raw chopped veggies before dinner on most days. I don’t eat standing up or while doing something else. Vegetables are an exception to that general rule.
I also try not to bring food into the house I don’t want to eat. John Berardi at PN urges people to clean house and get rid of food that they don’t want to eat. He jokingly says that if you bring food into your house odds are that sooner or later you or someone you love will eat it.
I agree with Tracy that there are no ‘evil’ foods but there are annoying foods that I inevitably eat more of than I would like. It’s not that they’re a great treat. I’m a big fan of delicious treats. These are foods I’d rather not eat but can’t resist if they’re there.
Tracy is skeptical about claims that we’re addicted to certain foods and I agree but at the same time there are foods that seem engineered to get me to eat more than I want.
There’s also a number of tools to help you eat more slowly. The the hapi fork isn’t for me but some people also have success slowing down by eating with their non dominant hand. Others use chopsticks, if that’s not familiar cutlery.
Why eat more slowly? It’s tied to the 80% idea. It takes awhile for our bodies to recognize how much we’ve eaten
Others like to eat using small plates and small forks. The small plates encourage us to take smaller servings and to feel like we’re eating more. The smaller forks just slow you down.
My family jokes about the American cutlery we bought. The spoons are enormous. No one wants to eat using the tablespoons and the teaspoons are just about the right size for cereal, etc.
Dish colours also make a difference in how much you eat. Aiming to eat less? Worst are dishes the same colour as the food you’re eating. Better are plates a different colour than your food. Best of all are blue plates, possibly because no food is that colour.
Read about blue plates here. I own blue plates but I didn’t buy them for that reason.
The only restrictive rule I’m trying to adopt is limiting dessert to twice a week. I’ll let you know how it goes…
Do you have any nutritional hacks or tips that you like? Please share.
Tracy has written lots about what works for her when it comes to food choices. Listening to her body rather than following a strict diet plan is the main piece of that. (See her post on intuitive eating.) She’s also not interested in seeking the advice of sports nutritionists (see here.) Largely she thinks our bodies know what they need and listening to our bodies is both healthier and less alienating than ‘mediated eating.’ We should eat what we want not what the latest diet plan or diet guru tells us to eat. See her post on fad diets here.
Our bodies are not the enemies. I like that as a slogan. The thing is I’m convinced my body is not my enemy. But I’m also not convinced it’s always my best friend either.
That said, I’m not as angry at my body as eat, drink, and run is. I’m not as amusing either. She explains why she doesn’t listen to her body in these terms:
“Because my body is kind of a little bitch. Yep, this body is all about guarding its own shortsighted interests. Go for a run, body? Noooo…I asked the legs, they’d rather take a rest day! Eat some of that broccoli? Noooo…taste buds want ice cream instead! Get out of bed and go to work? Oh…I consulted the epidermis and it says that these warm covers feel just fine, so we’re staying put, KTHXBAI.”
Mostly I’m in agreement with the intuitive eating idea, especially the claims that we need to make peace with food and end restrictive dieting. I think self trust matters for women’s autonomy. Casting aside the advice of experts is liberating.
These experts tend to target women with their advice and treat us as incompetent idiots. They create incompetence and then sell products to fix the problem.
Like the woman centred childbirth movement–if you feel like walking around in labour, walk around– the intuitive eating approach teaches women that we know what’s best for our own health.
Shut out the outside noise–whether the noise is fast food advertising or nutritional advice from experts–slow down and feed your self when you’re hungry, stop before you’re full, and eat foods that appeal to you.
What’s great about trusting your body, especially for women, is its radical potential. And as I’ve said, I think lots about this is right but here I want to raise some doubts about intuitive eating, at least as it applies to my life.
The worries I have been be divided into two categories, the internal and the external.
First, let’s look at the internal issues with intuitive approaches to eating.
Our bodies often want things that aren’t the best for us. That seems obvious to me and there is an easy explanation of why this is so. In evolutionary terms death by starvation was a much more likely bad outcome than the health risk of being overweight, especially prior to childbirth years. We are creatures geared for feast and famine times living in an environment of all feast, all the time. We’re not wrong or mistaken to want to eat whenever food presents itself. Until very recently in human history that desire would have served us very well.
Our bodies also aren’t unitary desiring machines either. There are conflicts between well being for different bits of our bodies. What’s good for our brain may not be so good for our thighs. Our brain’s desire for sugar is fascinating and it’s in clear conflict with what’s best for us overall. See “Why our brains love sugar and why our bodies don’t,” here, in Psychology Today.
It seems to me to be a very romantic view of embodiment to think our bodies know what’s best. I’ve written before about the variety of ways that our bodies undercut our best efforts. See this post about our bodies scheming against our weight loss efforts.
Second, let’s look at the external factors. There is no ‘what I want’ separate from my environment. I crave cupcakes, when I crave cupcakes, because I’m in a cupcake heavy time and place. There are many places and times where I might have lived where I’d never crave cupcakes. Would I have wanted something else? Sure. I don’t crave or eat meat but in much of the world not eating meat wouldn’t be an option and probably I’d come to desire it.
On a smaller scale now this is true about the environment I create for myself. I don’t like potato chips very much and I don’t buy them or bring them into my house. But if they’re there I come perversely to want them. Our desire for food isn’t separate from our environment. And I think this is especially true for food that’s designed, like cigarettes, to be addictive. I’m looking forward to reading Salt, Sugar, Fat reviewed here in the Guardian.
My next post in habits and environmental cues looks at how we might intervene and help ourselves make better choices.
Here’s what intuitive approaches get right. We don’t do as badly as we imagine we’d do if all food is available and nothing is off limits. And I think it’s right that lots of over eating stems from restricting our diets. Certain foods are held up to be both magically bad and desirable. And highly restrictive diets are destructive for just this reason.
But, for me at least, intuitive eating isn’t perfect either. After days without vegetables I come to crave them it’s true. But I doubt that left to my own desires I’d come to want enough green things. I also think that in small amounts we might eat more than we need in some cases and less in others. My own examples come from sports performance, not eating enough when I’m racing and eating too much on days when I do long slow rides. My appetite isn’t a reliable guide to what I need to eat to perform well.
Okay, what can we do? I think small changes in behavior and in our environment can make a difference. What sort of changes? These will be the topic of my next blog post.
Note it may turn out that for you, even small restrictions bring to mind the full on serious restrictions of heavy duty during, the way that tracking and nutrition counseling affected Tracy. If that’s right then I agree it’s best to stick with intuitive eating as a way of recovering from a history of dieting.
But as I’ve said in a few blog posts, it’s part of my goal to get leaner and to improve my nutrition. I’ll be listening to my body too but with a critical ear and strategizing about ways to get it what it wants while still meeting my goals and changing my eating habits.
One of our favorite things about the blog is the way it has generated conversation and a sense of community. We enjoy hearing from people, not least of which because we’ve had generous comments for the most part. Once in awhile, however, someone calls us on something. That’s okay too. Debate is good. We’re philosophers, and, as Sam said, that’s how we roll.
I was called out just last week when a regular commenter said that I spend a lot of time repeating that diets don’t work, but I don’t offer anything hopeful or helpful. Craig said, “if this blog is about getting fit and healthy, and not simply about “fat acceptance” – give us some clue as to how obese people can lose a lot of fat in a healthy way and keep it off for reasons pertaining to health, as opposed to just reminding us of the inevitability of us being fat and unhealthy forever!”
Granted he is right about one thing for sure: neither Sam nor I has given any advice for how to diet away fat and keep it off. The stats for success using that approach are depressingly grim. I say “depressingly” because I wish it were not so. But does this mean that I think there is no hopeful or helpful approach that might take the place of plans and programs aimed specifically at losing weight and keeping it off? Not at all.
We have also talked about metabolic health. Amber at Go Kaleo! is a strong proponent of focusing on lifting heavy weights and eating in such a way as to stoke the fire that is our metabolism. That usually means eating substantially more than we thought we needed to eat and that most diet plans will tell us we need to eat for maintenance.
Though I have not yet read Amber’s new book, Taking up Space, I know that the information from her blog is first rate, and that the book compiles a lot of information from the blog, making it easy to find and use. As Amber tells her own story, she was quite overweight by any standards and had a damaged metabolism. She says,
2008, after 35 years of the Standard American Diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and two pregnancies, I found myself obese, exhibiting a whole laundry list of Metabolic Disorder symptoms, and hurtling madly down a path toward chronic illness and an early, preventable death…After decades of diets, yo-yoing weight, and thousands of dollars spent on weight loss gimmicks, I decided to stop trying to lose weight and instead focus on nourishing my body with real, whole foods in adequate amounts, to achieve HEALTH, not weight loss. Instead of punishing myself for dietary indiscretions by spending hours running on the treadmill, interspersed with years of absolute inactivity, I started finding activities I enjoyed..
After doing her own extensive research she developed an approach that has certainly worked for her and enabled her to change her body composition dramatically while eating lots of good food, including carbohydrates. So that’s an approach that I would recommend.
I have also talked about Matt Stone’s Diet Recovery 2, another book in which metabolism and the damage that diets can do to it figure prominently. Again, he recommends an approach that is 180 degrees from what we usually see recommended in the form of diet for weight loss.
My preferred approach and the one that I am practicing these days is Intuitive Eating. It is working for me. By “working,” I mean that I am not obsessed with food and weight. That’s a big change from my experience for the majority of my adult life. I do not weigh myself anymore, and the last time I did (for curiosity’s sake — a dangerous move that I will not engage in very often), I weighed the same as when I’d started intuitive eating. If I end up gaining, I will not let a weight gain deter me from continuing to develop an overall healthy relationship to food, weight, and activity.
I combine this way of eating with my favorite activities: yoga, swimming, running, and resistance training. I follow a schedule for training, though I am not rigid about it. I would rather do less than I think I ought to do than aim so high that I start wanting to skip working out or feel as if working out is an obligation instead of an enjoyable part of my life. I recommend that anyone who is just starting out or who is struggling to find a rhythm with it aim lower rather than higher.
Above all, Sam and I don’t budge on being anti-diet. Why? Because they don’t work. I didn’t make that up and, as I said, I wish it weren’t true. I don’t keep saying this to discourage people, but rather to allow us to move on from a failed experiment.
We pretty consistently offer a different approach to those who are interested in improving their health (again, as Sam said yesterday, you don’t have to be interested in this). And we do offer some specific tools and information for embarking on that approach.
I have said before that it is not an easy thing to do. It’s very possible that those who follow Amber’s approach or Matt Stone’s approach or the intuitive eating approach or the focus on strength, not weight, will weigh more than the weight they have in mind as their ideal. But over time, the focus on that number will recede into the distance as a more energizing focus takes its place.
The “results” might not be as immediate or dramatic as what you will see on a restrictive diet. But they will be more sustainable.
When I was always dieting and gaining back weight, my dad — a family doctor — liked to say that the only thing necessary to lose weight and keep it off was to “change your eating habits.” This truism used to annoy me, but the fact is, I never took it seriously. I did have to change my eating habits. The single most necessary change I had to make was to stop eating beyond my comfort level. This requires a more mindful approach to food and to how I feel when I eat it. It’s every bit as difficult as dieting but the difference is that it produces sustainable changes.
There is nothing extreme about eating mindfully. And there is nothing extreme about the recommended approach to activity. In both cases, let’s make choices we enjoy.
I hope very much that the overall message of our blog is not one that inspires hopelessness, but rather one that encourages those who wish to enjoy a healthy approach to physical fitness to try doing things differently, and in more sustainable ways. We would love to offer a “how-to” with 5 or 7 or 10 easy steps. But that’s not how we do things around here.
[thanks go to Craig for sparking the conversation that led me to write this post]
Whenever I talk about moderation in eating, I always hear from people who have at least some foods that they do not believe they can moderate. These foods are usually things like potato chips and cheesies, cake and cookies, nuts and pretzels, chocolate and ice cream. To a lesser degree, some avoid things like pizza and french fries for similar reasons. They can’t eat just a little bit.
My initial reaction to this claim of the inability to moderate is skepticism. The intuitive eating approach that I’ve been following lately, and that has miraculously freed me from all rules about food and from overeating pretty much anything, works on the premise that when we release ourselves from the idea of forbidden foods and eat what we want, when we are hungry, in a mindful fashion until we are satisfied (not stuffed, satisfied), we will achieve a peaceful relationship with food.
“Peaceful” may seem an odd way of describing it, but if food has been the enemy for many years, as it has for many chronic dieters, then making peace with it is a huge achievement. The intuitive eating approach does not require that we cut out any particular foods altogether.
And it pretty much promises that if followed in a committed manner, with a firm resolve never to diet again and to stop monitoring your weight with regular weigh-ins, even the most obsessive, chronic dieter, even those with severe eating disorders (whether they be at the starvation end or the overeating end of the disordered eating spectrum), will learn to eat what they want, when they want, in moderate amounts.
This has been my experience. But it doesn’t happen overnight. When the rules are first lifted, of course we feel giddy with the new permissiveness. At that stage, it’s easy and fairly common to eat what we want when we want, but in amounts that exceed satiety. That is not what intuitive eating is all about. The mindful eating part of the equation, which is also something Sam is practicing with her precision approach, is as important as lifting our judgments about good foods and bad foods.
So my first response is always to encourage people who are ready to do something radical and different in their relationship with food to think of it as a process. I urge people to believe that if they have patience and follow the guidelines, the foods that they thought might forever trigger them into binging have a good chance of losing their power.
But this outcome may not be possible for everyone with respect to every kind of food. Why? Because it may be that in some small number of cases people actually have an addictive relationship with some foods.
I’m no stranger to the ways of addiction. It’s a serious thing that can take people down hard. It wrecks lives, makes people miserable, and has a huge impact on those who suffer from it and on almost everyone in their lives.
In my experience, the minimum requirement for overcoming an addiction is total abstinence. So I am quite willing to believe that for some people, if they are completely out of control around certain foods, then moderation is not going to work.
The other thing I know about addiction is that it is not only about the thing to which a person is addicted. Reaching outside of ourselves (for food or drugs or alcohol or more more of whatever it is) to change the way we feel, i.e. to feel better, even if only temporarily, is an ineffective coping strategy. When we abstain from the so-called problem substance or behavior, we have not necessarily developed better coping skills or dealt with the core issues that lead us to seek solace in e.g. a bag of potato chips in the first place.
Abstinence is a means of beginning to address addiction, but it will not give anyone a full recovery from it.
Since I am not one to throw around the idea that someone may be addicted lightly, I want to suggest that the majority of us who appear to have certain “problem” foods in our lives might find surprising results if we took a risk and truly allowed ourselves to incorporate these things into our lives.
I’m not suggesting that you incorporate foods that you don’t even like, of course. I’m talking about foods that we wish we could eat but avoid because we can’t control ourselves when we are around them.
I have felt that way around all sorts of foods and no longer have that experience. This change tells me that thankfully I was not addicted. I was just caught in a cycle of diet and deprivation followed by rebellious eating.
BUT, if you are a person who simply cannot deal moderately with a food and need to abstain completely, then you might have an addiction. Cutting out the problem substance (be it crack or potato chips) only addresses the symptom. Addiction is much more all-encompassing than just being unable to stop using something or eating something or drinking alcohol.
If someone’s reason for being unable to stop eating peanuts is that they are addicted, then abstaining from peanuts might stop them from overeating peanuts, but it will not address the deeper issues that lead them to an addictive relationship with certain foods.
I know of one organizaton, Overeater’s Anonymous, that is dedicated to helping those with food addictions in the same way that Alcoholics Anonymous helps alcoholics deal with their alcoholism. It’s a drastic measure that from what I’ve heard includes a very restricted food plan (I don’t have first hand experience with OA, so that might not be the case). Before taking it, I would explore less drastic measures, such as the intuitive eating approach or any approach that does not involve severe food restrictions and that encourages mindful eating.
I acknowledge that I am something of an evangelist, singing the praises of the intuitive eating approach to all who will listen. That is only because I have experienced an amazing, almost unbelievable shift in my relationship with food, weight and body image since embracing this approach on January 1, 2013.
I am relieved that my “food issues” were not about addiction, and that something as reasonable as the intuitive eating approach could have such a transformative impact on my life.
Recently, in response to a comment I made about the calories in fruit juice, a friend said to me that fruit juice is “evil.” I am a philosopher who does a lot of ethics. So “evil” means something quite severe to me. Hitler and Pol Pot were evil. Fruit juice, not so much.
I checked back with my friend. No, he didn’t mean it was literally evil. Just that it’s as bad as a can of Coke. Still pretty bad, if not downright evil. It’s a “sometimes” food, not an everyday food. Other anti-juice people jumped in to clarify further. Juice is really, really bad FOR you. Harley Pasternak demonized it the other day in his talk too. He said that a cup and half of OJ has 240 calories. That’s not quite right, since a cup has 112 calories.
But I don’t want to quibble about orange juice in particular. It’s this whole notion of good foods and bad foods that really gets under my skin. Very few foods, eaten in moderate quantities, are actually bad for you. I ate a big and delicious piece of vegan chocolate cake yesterday. I don’t believe it was in the least bad for me. Why? Because I don’t eat cake every day. I eat it about once or twice a month.
I can’t trace the quote exactly, but a long time ago I read a great response by George Cohon of McDonald’s, to the claim that McDonald’s food was “bad for you.” He said something like that McDonald’s never said you should eat its food three meals a day, seven days a week. I hesitate to agree with him (because McDonald’s is problematic in other ways, in my view), but I agree. McDonald’s and orange juice, chocolate cake and potato chips…all of these can be part of a healthy diet without doing damage to the person who ingests them.
Moralizing food by calling some of it “bad” and some of it “good” gives the false impression that foods in themselves have moral qualities. It isn’t a huge jump, and people make this jump all the time, to the claim that people who eat “good” foods in the “right” amounts are virtuous and people who do not are bad.
We frequently think of chocolate cake as “sinfully delicious” and “decadent.” I’ve spoken to many a dieter who said, not that they had a good week, but that they were “good” that week. If they wandered off the plan by eating something they weren’t supposed to, they were “bad” that week. Some foods are considered “guilty pleasures.”
One of my favorite parts of both the intuitive eating approach and the the demand feeding approach to food is that they both tell us to “legalize” all foods. Carrot sticks are as legal as carrot cake, neither better nor worse than the other. I can already hear the rumblings in the comments. “But carrot sticks are better for you than carrot cake!” I can even hear those who would jump in against carrot sticks because they have a higher sugar content than celery sticks.
The whole thing brings me back to the idea of moderation, which Sam wrote about in such a lovely way recently. We can live life by strict rules and have all sorts of forbidden foods on a black list if we like. But forbidden foods are, for many of us, more attractive for being forbidden.
I know that when I finally truly legalized all foods, french fries, which I’d considered my favorite food for all of my life, suddenly lost their appeal. They’re okay, and I do enjoy them from time to time. But are they my favorite foods? No. If I had a choice of giving up fries for the rest of my life or giving up mangoes for the rest of my life, I’d give up the fries. And not because they’re “bad” or even “bad for me,” but because I simply love a good fresh mango.
The food police are those people who like to jump in and tell you about the evil foods that are bad for you and that you should avoid. I’m not interested in what they have to say. I am extremely well informed about nutrition and used to be able to rhyme off all sorts of fun facts about countless foods. I wrote them down every day and kept meticulous count. I avoided fruit juice and all caloric drinks so as not to waste the stingily parceled out grams of this or that. Like so many people, I felt so incredibly virtuous when I stuck with it, often for months and even years at a time.
I convinced myself, as I have heard so many others do, that I just loved this way of eating. It was so great! And I was so good! Meanwhile, I felt deprived, especially around celebrations and special occasions, which are enhanced by taking a meal together. I had my false sense of virtue, but it wasn’t much fun.
I have also witnessed the effect of “virtuous” eating on others who were not so virtuous but who thought they should be. People would apologize for themselves for eating. “I shouldn’t be having this, but…” That is always a preamble to the next day’s self-flagellation, “I was so bad at my daughter’s wedding yesterday.” Or this one, “I’ll just take a sliver.” When I was a young adult, my mother and I polished off close to whole banana loaf over the course of an evening by taking little slivers. Even today I look back and think I should have just cut off a good sized slice, slathered it with butter, sat down with it, and enjoyed it. Instead, I sneaked into the kitchen a few times and shaved off inadequate pieces that left me wanting more.
When we moralize foods into good, bad, evil even, we deny ourselves permission and set ourselves up not just as failures, but as moral failures.
If the foods that made people feel so bad weren’t forbidden or “sinful” in the first place, they’d be less attractive and people would be less likely to eat more of them than is comfortable.
Are there any foods that, for health reasons, we simply should not eat EVER, that even in tiny amounts are “evil”? For some people, there are “trigger” foods that they simply cannot moderate. I will have more to say about that in another post. And of course, some people are allergic to things that will kill them if they eat them. And as a vegan I am keenly aware of social, moral and political reasons for avoiding certain foods.
But those foods aside, I’m not sure if there are any foods that should never, ever, under any circumstances, be eaten because of our health. And if there are, fruit juice is not among them.
Some other posts about food, diets, and moderation:
When we track our blog stats, Sam and I always get a kick out of seeing that our post on raspberry ketones, pure green coffee bean extract, and garcina cambogia is among the most popular. It’s not popular because everyone wants to read about why the appeal to authority is a fallacy. It’s not popular because it essentially dismisses these things, claiming that you should keep your money and focus on a healthy approach to eating real food.
No. It’s popular because “raspberry ketones,” “pure green coffee bean extract,” and “garcinia cambogia” are popular search terms for people looking for the next weight loss miracle. They are among the latest fads.
“Fad diet” is a derogatory way of referring to any trendy weight loss plan. I’ve yet to hear it used in a positive way. When I was a teenager and in my twenties, popular fad diets included the banana diet, the grapefruit diet, the cabbage soup diet, the Scarsdale Diet.
The grapefruit diet is pretty representative of how these things go, so I’ll use it as an example. You eat half a grapefruit at each meal. With it, at breakfast you have two eggs and some bacon, at lunch you have meat and salad, at dinner you have meat and a vegetable (from an approved list), and then you drink a glass of tomato juice or skim milk at bed time.
The “key” ingredient, be it cabbage soup, bananas, grapefruit, acai berries, a miracle juice or a special smoothie, is really just a diversion. The reason people lose weight rapidly on these diets is that they involve severe calorie restriction and usually cut out most simple and complex carbohydrates (except a few vegetables and one or two types of fruit). They also include very few snacks, usually restricting eating to three bland meals a day.
Fad diets like this don’t even pretend to be long term. They are almost always for a stated period of time, ranging from 3 days to 3 weeks.
Other kinds of fad diets, such as the Zone, Atkins, the Blood Type Diet, the Paleo Diet, or the South Beach Diet purport to be longer term and most include advice for eating their way forever. But they also include long lists of forbidden foods, such as carbohydrates other than certain approved vegetables. I don’t care what anyone says, our bodies need carbs to function efficiently.
Again, the complicated food plans are, in my view, just a diversion. If we eat a lot of junk food we will maintain a higher weight than many of us wish to maintain. These plans usually cut out chips and fried foods, cakes and pies, cookies and candy bars. Cutting those things out will of course allow someone to maintain a lower weight than they might if they ate these things all the time.
The diets also often restrict juice.
I was at a talk the other day by Harley Pasternak, personal trainer for many Hollywood celebrities and author of “The Five Factor Diet.” Other that his approved smoothies (because apparently we ingest more nutritional ingredients when our food is blended than when we chew it ourselves), his diet requires that all drinks be calorie free. He spoke of fresh squeezed OJ as if it was the devil (note that a cup and a half does contain an alarming 450 calories—this might be good information to have but doesn’t automatically mean you ought never drink fresh squeezed orange juice again).
An interesting thing that Harley Pasternak said was this. Though he believes, and all the research points to the fact that, slow, steady weight loss of about half a pound a week is the most effective for long term good results, no one is interested in that kind of weight loss. A book that offered that would not sell. These days, we want fast results, a la Tim Ferriss and the 4-Hour Body. Without fast results in the first week or two, people will not stick to a plan.
That goes a long way to explaining the appeal of fad diets that are for a limited time only. They get the weight off quickly. So those who go on them feel successful. That keeps them focused, at least for the period of the diet. And knowing that it is time-limited makes it bearable.
But as I’ve said many times before, short term results aren’t all that interesting. They’re uninteresting because they are fleeting at best. The weight comes back and in 98% of the cases, people end up heavier than they were before they went on the diet.
This is in part because they have damaged their metabolism. The body responds to severely restricted eating by slowing down the metabolism to cope with the lower food intake and use it more efficiently. Most of us do not ease ourselves off of fad diets, but rebound with a major binge on all that we were deprived of while eating half grapefruits and meat and salad.
The need for quick results is what sabotages our efforts from the get go. If slow but steady is what works, then why are we so resistant to slow progress? Maybe we need new measures of success. Much of what Sam and I are trying to do in our lives, and are trying to champion in the blog, is to revise our visions of success. Sam has a great post that explains why body weight and even BMI have been shown to be poor measures of fitness and health. I’m with her when she advocates for athletic over aesthetic values. It’s not all about looking a certain way, as we can see when we look at the reality of fitness figure competitors.
These days, I have a more diverse sense of goals. I do not have weight loss goals at all anymore. I am happy with what my body can do and I enjoy fueling it according to the guidelines of the intuitive eating approach. A great measure of success for me is to maintain a non-obsessive relationship with food, eat what I want when I need it and in the amounts that keep me satisfied, and above all to enjoy eating. It’s a wonderful part of life.
I also have performance goals for distance and speed in swimming and running, and for weight and reps in my resistance training, and for gaining strength, confidence, and balance in my yoga practice.
Besides those goals, I have simple “practice” goals each week. These are just about showing up to do what I said I would do and what I feel I need to do to train well. For me, this means running 3 times a week, going swimming 2 times a week, resistance training every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and going to yoga 3-4 times per week. If I can stay on task with these commitments, I feel pretty successful.
I feel fairly confident that following through on doing what is necessary to meet these goals will automatically change the ratio of lean mass to fat in my body composition. I do not preoccupy myself with this as a goal, but I do look on it with interest, for the purposes of our “fittest by fifty” adventure. To that end, I have scheduled another bod pod visit for next month.
Finally, I’ve got an overall goal that supports my sense of well-being, and that is to have a pretty relaxed attitude about it all. I’m not a drill sergeant anymore. If I miss a workout or eat less mindfully than I rather would, it’s not the end of the world and I don’t spend a single second in remorse. Onward!
Fad diets fuel an all-or-nothing mentality. You’re on it or you’re not. They set us up to fail even if we are successful on the diet itself. Why? Because the pounds will return. They do not promote good health, strong muscles, or sustainable habits. They do not promote moderation, but rather, extremism. I’m not alone in my views about fad diets. Go Kaleo has a whole blog with the tagline: Are you as tired of fad diets as I am?
I liked Sam’s post about moderation yesterday because I’m a big fan of it myself. I’m also a big fan of slow and steady progress that takes me in a consistent direction. And I’m an advocate of doing less instead of more. And I really don’t like wasting my time with things that set me up for failure, demoralize me, and make me feel badly about myself. Fad diets have done all of these things to me, lots of my friends, and millions of people I don’t know.
Let’s revise our view of success in ways that support our well-being.