Friday, July 29, 2011

Eating food: how to tell if you're doing it wrong

In my first post, I wrote that when it comes to food, many people are doing it wrong. I imagined the defensive hackles this could raise. How can I say “your diet is wrong”?

It boils down to this: Whether you have goals or not for your diet, if your diet isn't supporting your well-being, if your diet is poisoning you, and you don't feel well as a result, then you are eating wrong. A well nourished, healthy person not only feels a greater sense of well-being, but is also more sensitive to the body's cues, making it easier, over time, to choose well for continued good health.

There are reasons why we eat what we do. We eat for energy, to satisfy hunger and cravings. We eat to feel well. Before humans even knew what a vitamin was, we knew enough to seek out the foods we needed to be healthy and strong, just like all other living things do. We eat what is available to us to eat, and what we know from experience will satisfy us. It’s a quality of successful organisms, being able to find and eat the right kinds of food.

Besides the physical cues, there are social reasons for our food choices that can seem more important, especially if we’ve been conditioned to assume our bodily processes are beneath our notice. We eat because it's dinner time, because we have company, because we're watching TV and want something to do with our hands and mouths. We eat what we have learned to eat to be healthy or to lose weight, as well as what to eat in celebration and pleasure. We eat what we think we deserve. There is the food we eat that reflects our favorite views of ourselves, and what we are ashamed to admit to eating. We eat in a hurry, with no regard, while doing something else, and we eat in rituals. We eat alone, and with family and friends. Sometimes we don't eat, even though we are hungry: we fight our urges because we want to appear, to ourselves and others, more beautiful and strong-willed, more worthy of blessings.

Somehow, as a species, we all managed to eat sufficiently good diets that we’re still here. Wherever we lived, humans found a way to prosper on the local wildlife. If a diet worked, the person thrived; if it worked less well, the person made it, but not so comfortably; and if someone was truly getting diet wrong, the person was soon dead. Over the millennia, humans came up with ways to make it easier to satisfy our hunger. We grew energy-dense plant foods, and herded animals that we also ate from. We learned to preserve food, make it more dense for transport, cook and culture food to make it more nourishing.

Today, economic pressures have replaced hunger as the driving force behind innovations in food production. Companies flourish, not by making their customers healthy, as humans have done for themselves for thousands of years, but by making them want to buy more of the products the companies sold. Other “health” industries flourish by making nutrition seem difficult to achieve by eating food, or the knowledge of what you “really” need so complicated that you end up "needing" an advanced degree to understand why you need it.

Maybe you’ve heard, as I have, that if you present a very young child, such as a baby who is just starting to eat something other than milk, with a variety of healthy foods, the kid will naturally select enough of the right kinds of food to stay healthy. This kind of practical guidance has kept many a parent from stressing out too much about the occasional all-carrot or all-chicken diet that children will rotate through.

It’s true that this sort of approach works very well, as long as you start with a healthy body free of addictions and damage, which can express its needs in a way you can perceive and respond to, and only as long as you don’t stack the deck and include foods that contain psychoactive properties, like the vast majority of industrial foods do. In fact, you can define what a drug is by looking at what people choose that is out of balance. Add sugar to the buffet, and no one—not the children or the adults—will make the best choices. Make sugar most of the choices, and you see what we get: lifestyle diseases, the most widespread of which can be directly traced to a diet high in refined carbohydrates. Not just diabetes, but heart disease, and even cancer, can be caused by the Standard American Diet. It’s appropriate that what most Americans eat is described by an acronym that means “unhappy.”

Now we are sold food that has been broken down and rebuilt, with each nutrient that we discover catalogued in a nutrition facts label that does not distinguish foods by breed, soil, time since harvest, flavor, growing method, or any of the other factors that people who know how to produce food have used for hundreds of years to assess food value. And drugs have been added to our food: chemicals meant to replace vitamins that have been leached out by processing, or meant to mimic flavors and textures of the foods they imitate, as well as chemicals known for their psychoactive properties, like caffeine and sugar. The total effect of industrial food is of a simulacrum of food.

Modern industrial foods have been engineered to hack our biochemistry, and the balanced systems that regulate our bodily needs and urges. Just like recreational drugs, highly available food energy overwhelms us with too much of a good thing. Yet we call these drugs “food,” and eat them according to cultural and bodily cues as if they were equal in every important way to the real foods they replace. They crowd out what we used to eat, satisfying our pleasure centers, but leaving us feeling vaguely ill. Another bump of the same drug becomes the only conceivable way to feel better.

The ways that we sin against ourselves in the realm of our diets are in denying ourselves, and accepting the lies we hear and repeat to ourselves about what we eat. If we don’t acknowledge all of our drives, and all of the food that we eat, we keep from ourselves the tools we need to change our lives. Denial—of what we really want, as well as of what we actually eat—is a blind spot born of defense. What we aren’t prepared to deal with, we don’t look at.

The most obvious way to interpret "you're eating wrong" is to assume that our conscious goals in selecting what to eat are not being met by our food selections. We may seek food that is hot, cheap, and tasty. Or we may tell ourselves and others that we're "on a diet," meaning we’re intending to reduce our net energy levels through caloric restriction. Or we may have yet another class of conscious goals for our diets: to avoid animal cruelty, injustice, or environmental degradation, or to conform with a spiritual practice. These are only a few of the dietary goals that we know how to talk about. There are others that, once we become aware of the lack in our lives, can take priority. If you are used to feeling run down and tired, expect that rashes or migraines are just a part of life, or regularly suffer in some other way that is not adequately explained, perhaps your diet is responsible. You may never have considered that good health is to be expected, that your suffering is exceptional, and that it may be alleviated by eating properly. Whether you seek pleasure; energy deficit; allergen avoidance; good health; communion with family, friends, or a higher power; or to save the planet by your food choices; if you find, upon examination of the evidence, that your diet is in opposition to your fulfillment, then you must change your diet, or remain unsatisfied.

I don’t waste time beating myself up for having eaten white pasta for twenty-five years; I simply became a convert to whole wheat. Now, I prefer the taste of whole grain, and find white bread pasty and unappealing. I wasn’t ready to make the switch on first taste, and that’s understandable. We’re creatures of habit, but we also have free will, and with some effort we can impose will on our habits. I wouldn’t ask you to do it for invisible, indiscernible reasons; I wouldn’t do it for reasons I didn’t care about, feel, or understand. It was only when I had my own moment of epiphany that I felt any urge to change how I ate.

Perhaps you've heard something like this already: that a diet should be something that you eat all of the time, not something you get on and fall off of, like a wagon. Diet is a part of lifestyle. There’s no guilt in this definition. We can describe diets. We can change diets. We can even eat bad food. But we cannot irrevocably fail at dieting, unless we stop eating long enough to die at it. Karen Carpenter? She failed at dieting. You? Not a failure at dieting. Because diet is an inescapable part of being alive. And like everything else that's really important in life: sleeping enough, clean water and air, having good sex, and moving around, finding good things to eat is easy enough for just about anybody to do, and well worth the trouble for the reward.