Diet in a time of Coronavirus

At a time when Australians are hitting the supermarkets to stock up on food and other essentials, I’m appreciating being so acutely aware of how little food I need to survive.

A third of Australian adults are overweight, which means a lot of people in this country overeat, not to mention the food waste from households (and the whole industry and supply-chain).

That translates to a lot of people currently buying more than they usually buy, which is already more than they actually need.

In my approach to diet I’ve become more and more mindful of why I eat, and why I sometimes eat too much.

Once you distinguish between eating for nourishment versus eating for pleasure, escape, comfort, and socialisation, it’s startling how little is needed.

I’m pretty sure a lot of the panic buying is driven by the need for food as an emotional support. People are anxious, and obtaining large quantities of food brings a primal sense of security.

I’ve literally brought home the bacon, and not only is survival now assured, but so is the crispy, delicious, fried and salty sensory overload, should I need it to help me feel better about the unfolding catastrophe around me.

Except I’ve been progressively reducing my use of food for emotional support, and taking some of the emotional complexity and codependence out of eating. I don’t need the food to make me feel better, just to give me enough energy to live.

In a healthy serve of irony, right before the panic buying began I was already thinking about reducing the amount of food I buy and cook for myself and my family.

Food as fuel

I like to imagine food as fuel. Imagine you’re throwing wood or coal into a furnace. You want the fire to keep going at it’s optimal rate…you don’t want to give it too little fuel because then it will die down. But nor do you want to smother it with too much fuel.

It’s not a bad analogy, since cellular respiration (the process of converting chemical energy into cellular energy within our bodies) is technically a combustion reaction, just like burning wood or coal.

But I’m keeping it as a rough analogy, because what I like to imagine is the food I eat being akin to fuel thrown on a fire. Too little and I feel weak and dizzy – the fire dies down. Too much and I feel heavy, full, and bloated – the fire is smothered.

And it’s not just the amount of food, it’s also the type of food. Eating heavily-processed sugars and carbohydrates provide energy but leave me feeling unwell, like throwing accelerants on a fire – the burst of flame from flammable liquids and solids dies down quickly and gives off unpleasant fumes.

So I let my body guide me, and it can have some surprising results. Fruit doesn’t appeal to me as much, and I naturally eat fewer carbohydrates overall.

But occasionally this same intuitive sense of what to eat leads me to fats, oils and salt, or to wholemeal bread, dairy, protein – all in small quantities but presumably fulfilling a need for specific nutrients.

Wholesome is how I would describe these impulses. Certainly different from the needy sensation of craving other kinds of foods, and different even from the feeling of wanting to repeat a wholesome food experience.

What is the appeal of ice-cream?

Ice-cream is a bit of a weakness for me. My wife bought a whole lot of ice-cream half-price along with wafer cones, and I find it hard to justify not eating it.

So let’s deconstruct the appeal of ice-cream and see if we can shift it.

Why does it taste good? Because it contains cream and sugar, both of which trigger very primitive and deeply ingrained biological responses.

In a state of nature, concentrated sugar and fat are hard to come by. Our bodies have evolved to relish these treats on the assumption that they are rare and will provide us much-needed energy.

Take a look at the ingredients and nutritional information for the ice-cream.

You can see that the ice-cream is about 16% fat and 20% sugar, and as you might know from cooking in general, fat and oil are made more palatable by the addition of sugar or salt, and vice-versa. In other words people will eat a lot more sugar and cream combined than separate.

What about all the other stuff in there? If you’ve ever made ice-cream you’ll appreciate that these manufacturers have gone to additional lengths to change the mouthfeel and flavour of this sugar-and-cream-delivery-system.

Maltodextrin and dextrose are just different forms of sugar with different levels of sweetness. If they used only regular sugar the ice-cream would be sickly sweet. Checkout this great site for a breakdown of how and why different sugars are used in ice-cream.

Thickeners, emulsifiers, anti caking agent and vegetable gum are also added to control the texture of the final product. Colours are as important as flavours when it comes to food, and salt is a frequent unexpected ingredient in desserts, as it enhances and balances the flavours…which is to say it helps you eat more of it.

So it’s no accident that this ice-cream tastes good. The manufacturers have gone to a great deal of effort to make this ice-cream taste good and feel good in your mouth.

And if you look at it as a cream and sugar delivery-system, tasting good and feeling good encourages you to eat more.

But if I had to make it myself, it’s far too much effort, relative to the nutritional value. It doesn’t make sense to make this for yourself. And if you made a simpler version of it at home, you wouldn’t want to eat as much because your body would tell you “enough!” much sooner.

This isn’t to say that ice-cream is bad or should never be eaten, but it doesn’t make sense to buy and eat it except for the experience. In other words, foods like ice-cream are highly susceptible to escapist eating. If you were eating to give yourself energy and nutrients, ice-cream would be a very poor choice.

And then there’s the cone.

I won’t bother with an ingredients list for the cones. Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t be bothered trying to make waffle cones at home on a regular basis, and yet the texture and flavour in combination with the ice-cream are a big part of the appeal for me.

Stop buying cones and I’ll probably stop buying ice-cream too. I can’t stop my wife buying them, but I can use a process like this above to deconstruct the appeal of the food, and bring to the forefront of my mind the unsavoury aspects of such confections.

Food, fat, and finding inner peace

Can you see the excess fat on your body as equivalent to the excess food in your diet?

It’s a direct cause and effect relationship. Eating more than you need translates into more fat on your body.

The excess fat feels like it’s not really a part of you. That’s why we feel bad when we look in the mirror or catch a glimpse of it.

There’s a thematic link between this fat that feels like it’s not a part of us, and the excess food we eat. Because the moment we try to stop eating we feel bad. Even the thought of eating less feels bad.

But why does it feel bad? Not because eating too much is good. Not because we are being deprived of something we need.

It feels bad because we have been using that excess food to keep ourselves occupied…literally full of something, a distraction from our own selves.

Binge eating – like binge viewing and binge drinking – immerses us in something other. The word itself originally meant to soak wood in liquid until it swells. When binge eating our whole body and mind are entranced with the process. That’s what makes it such a potent escape.

We lose ourselves in food, and the byproduct is excess fat that looks and feels like it’s not truly a part of who we are.

But why do we feel bad? What are we trying to escape from? Why are we seeking to lose ourselves in the first place?

The exact reason differs from person to person, because our lives and our stories are unique. But the bad feeling that comes when we stop eating is not about the food, but about ourselves.

Whether it’s fear or anxiety, shame or self-hate, boredom or disappointment, bad memories or an unwanted reality; whether we need professional help to manage it, or just time and acceptance to reconcile it; finding peace with ourselves and our world is the answer.

Don’t try to lose weight

Don’t try to lose weight, try to fix your relationship with food.

That was the central point of my book The Weight-Loss Paradox. In hindsight I think it worked for me precisely because it took my focus away from the vexed issue of weight loss, and onto the real problem of how I use food.

Plenty of people can lose weight by just restricting their intake, with no further thought required. But for many of us eating less is a big challenge.

That’s why we need all our focus to be on fixing the problem – our relationship with food – not on the outcome of weight loss.

Being overweight is not the problem. It’s natural and healthy to be overweight if we consistently overeat. Really take that on board: my body weight is not the problem. I’m not trying to lose weight. I’m trying to bring order and balance to how and when and why I eat.

I’m not trying to lose weight. My weight is merely an indicator of my eating habits. There is nothing wrong with my weight, but there is something wrong with the way I use food.

It’s like drinking too much. There’s something wrong in drinking too much, hangovers and other health problems are just a side-effect and indicator that there is something wrong.

Saying “I’m trying to have fewer hangovers, but it’s just so hard!” sounds weird, but that’s how many of us approach weight-loss.

Being hungover every day is a good reason to do something about your drinking habits. Being overweight is a good reason to examine your eating habits. But in the end the solution must be in finding a renewed, healthier relationship with food and drink; a more balanced and reasonable way of using them.

More resistance to meditation

This morning I woke up and found myself resistant to meditation.

I went through my morning practice of reading a script I’ve written to focus myself, but instead of focusing I felt more resistance to it.

I don’t want to just push against my resistance. After all, I’m creating it. I’m actively creating the resistance to my own desire.

Since my intention to meditate is so conscious, it’s natural to take its side and see the resistant part as an obstacle to be overcome.

But experience has shown that these less-conscious parts of me are older and have been around longer. It’s like wanting to knock down a wall inside your house only to discover that it’s load-bearing.

In that case, bear in mind this older part of me doesn’t exist to resist efforts to meditate. It probably came into existence before I’d even heard of meditation. No, that part has its own aims and reference points that just happen to interfere with my intent to meditate.

So the real question is why, at this time of day and in this context, does part of me not want to just pay attention to a sound so as to suspend thought?

And the answer taking shape is that part of me really hates being told what to do, and would rather idly do nothing at all than go along with someone’s orders or commands.

Apparently that defiance extends to some of my own conscious intentions.

As with yesterday’s post, this older part of me doesn’t feel good. It’s a reaction to unwanted circumstances from the past where I was ordered around and coerced to such an extent that I resolved to fight it wherever I could.

But this defiance or passive non-compliance has continued despite changing circumstances. It’s no longer relevant, but has been running in the background anyway, clamping down in response to perceived orders, commands, and coercion…including my own “order” to practice meditation first thing this morning.

So, ironically, this part of me actually is resistant to meditating, because it’s resistant to all impositions of action, all perceived coercion.

What next?

This might seem a bit disheartening but it’s actually evidence of meditation working, by bringing up resistant elements and allowing me to become conscious of them.

Because it’s a part of me, albeit forgotten by me, to furiously resent coercion and retreat from it into a kind of pyrrhic isolation.

Meditation brought this part of me to the fore, and it is clearly a lot bigger than just the subject of meditation.

It explains, perhaps, why I struggle to stick to a schedule. Why I enjoy endeavours in the experimental and exploratory stages but completely lose interest the moment those endeavours become structured, organised, and formalised with some kind of external accountability – real or imagined.

I vowed to never again put myself in a position where I could be coerced or ordered around, then forgot my vow and went on with life.

What comes next is allowing this question to become fully conscious in my current life and circumstances: is coercion really a threat to me? Do I want to continue seeing the world through the lens of defiant self-sabotage?

Finding motivation

Whether it’s losing weight or learning to meditate, motivation is the key.

The key to motivation is belief. The reality we each inhabit is entirely framed and contextualised by our beliefs about it.

I’ve tried for many years to meditate, because I believed it would help me find peace and happiness.

But for some reason I found it so difficult that I began to suspect it just wasn’t for me.

It’s not until recently that I understood why: meditation is really, really easy, but I believed it should be difficult.

I came to meditation and spiritual practice as a kind of epic journey and worthwhile accomplishment. I believed that in order to be worthwhile, the journey must be difficult.

And coupled with this was my desire for an identity and sense of self-worth. So meditation had to be difficult, to give me a feeling of accomplishment.

Making things easy

Many things in life are easy once you’ve worked out what you need to do.

But even “easy” things are difficult if you lack the motivation to do them.

Losing weight and meditation are great examples.

If I want to lose weight, know how to do it, but don’t do it, then clearly something is going wrong.

If I want to meditate, know how, but don’t…it’s a motivation issue and therefore a belief issue.

Self-examination

So why haven’t I been meditating every day?

To examine myself on this subject I imagine the scenario in which I meditate every day and bring that peace and ease into my life.

I notice a negative feeling in me as I imagine this scenario. It’s a bit like part of me feels left out of this scenario.

So part of me is resistant to what I want. This is inner conflict, and explains why I’ve struggled to do what I think I want.

The resistant part of me isn’t bad. It probably comes from an earlier time in life and represents different priorities and wants.

So part of me wants to meditate and feel good each day, and part of me wants something else, and the end result is inner conflict that comes across as a lack of motivation.

The next question to ask is: why? Why would part of me not want to meditate and feel good each day? What would I lose if I felt good each day….if I felt relaxed, easy, peaceful…

I need to get things done.

That’s the thought and the feeling that came up as I expanded on my desired state of ease and peace.

Part of me strongly (and with negative feelings) believes that I need to get things done, and this belief – and especially its emotional tone – conflicts with meditating and feeling peace and ease and relaxation.

By a process of self-examination this conflict is becoming conscious. Two parts of me that have never met are now connecting and I’m in a position to reconcile the implicit conflict between “getting things done” and “enjoying life in peace and ease”.

Resolving the conflict

It’s immediately clear to me that the desire to get things done is not a happy one. It feels bad, fearful, and stressed.

It no doubt stems from an earlier period in life when I was under strong external pressure to “get things done”. Back then it seemed like getting things done was the best way to remove that external pressure and find relief.

So this part of me isn’t bad or wrong. It was my best attempt to find relief and ease under very specific circumstances. I just haven’t updated it or examined it since then. I continued living my life with this belief operating quietly in the background.

Under external pressure it made sense to get things done so I could rest and play and be free from pressure. But that pressure no longer exists, and yet I’ve kept it alive in my mind for years.

As I tried to meditate in the past, these different parts of me tried to find their own balance by turning meditation into a difficult challenge that, if accomplished, would count as “getting things done”. But that’s not how meditation works.

While I wanted to meditate, part of me wanted to appease a sense of external pressure. It was only as I learned that meditation is actually meant to be easy that this conflict came to the fore, because nothing “easy” can placate the pressure I had internalised.

Updating old beliefs

Beliefs like “I have to get things done to relieve external pressure” don’t serve me anymore.

As I become conscious of them they lose their power and I am able to update these old beliefs with my new knowledge and clarity.

Now I can imagine again my desired scenario of meditating and allowing that ease and peace and relaxation and happiness to flow into every day.

And as I feel the resistance from the old beliefs, I can continue to expand on my desired scenario with words that soothe and neutralise the old belief: I don’t have to get anything done. I am relaxed and easy. My whole day feels like ease. There is no pressure on me to get anything done. There is nothing I need to do. There is nothing I ever need to get done. There will never be anything that needs to get done. There will never be any pressure on me.

Meditation is ease. Meditation is all I need to do. My whole day can be ease and relief and relaxation, and there is no one and no thing that can resist it.

I can feel the shift in my mind as these beliefs change. It will take continued practice because “getting things done” will crop up again in different contexts. But I’ve sown the seeds of the new belief and so long as I practice ease and relief the conflicts will resolve naturally.

Getting to the root

As I practice, the root beliefs in this conflict will eventually arise.

I create my reality. My beliefs literally create and form the reality I inhabit.

Why does meditation allow ease and peace and relaxation? Because reality is meant to be easy and peaceful and relaxing, it’s just beliefs like “I need to get things done!” that create conflict.

Meditation suspends those thoughts and beliefs and temporarily removes the conflict.

Time spent in meditation feeling good reinforces the intrinsic goodness of existence and weakens the hold of old beliefs.

And along the way, the act of meditating becomes a measure of motivation, and hence an indicator of the beliefs active within.

Weight loss: Time to get serious

So I’ve lost 4-5kg using my approach, and I’m borderline overweight according to my BMI.

At this stage the pleasure of eating still motivates me to eat more than I need to keep going. It’s easy to think “screw it” and eat more for dinner and also have something for dessert.

I’ve been at this point for a couple of weeks and the beauty of doing this mindfully is that I’m increasingly conscious of my decision to overeat.

It’s simply cause and effect: my overeating maintains my current weight.

But as time goes on the pleasure of the food holds less allure, or rather, the displeasure of being overweight becomes more salient.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be in the normal weight range? Wouldn’t it be nice to not be carrying excess weight? Wouldn’t it feel good to be lean again?

I’m well-versed in the pleasure of eating, but what about the pleasure of a lean and healthy body? What about looking good? What about wearing whatever I want?

It feels good to be attractive and healthy. It feels good to be lean. And these good feelings are motivators that can counteract the allure of food.

Feeling good about my body can help me make a different decision as I approach mealtime, or when my wife brings home snacks (it’s all her fault!).

Appreciating your body in a healthy and normal weight range is far more powerful than the pleasure of most of the food that most of us eat on a daily basis.

And it is possible to have both: you can be lean and healthy and still enjoy the pleasure of truly delicious food; just not to the extent that it robs you of the pleasure of a lean and healthy body.

Being overweight is hard work

We are always told it’s hard to lose weight. But consider how hard it is to gain and maintain weight.

Sometimes we hear about actors gaining weight for a role, and how difficult they find it.

Think about it: your body consumes energy just by being alive. And the heavier you are, the more energy it consumes.

If you’re overweight you’re already going to a lot of effort, time, and expense obtaining, preparing, and consuming food.

It takes energy to eat! It takes energy to digest. It takes energy to convert excess energy into fat. And it takes energy to carry around that stored energy in your body.

Your body has to work hard to eat, digest, and excrete. Being overweight takes hard work.

And it takes dedication too. You can’t simply eat a lot one day and then gain weight. You have to eat consistently. You need your average intake to be consistently high.

Think about how much time and effort it takes each day to maintain your weight. Wouldn’t it be easier not to? To give your body a break, let it wind down. Give it space to relax and be free from the high-intensity processing of food for a while.

Okay, this one idea isn’t going to change your eating habits, but there’s some truth to it, and it’s worth playing with fresh perspectives to shift your established patterns and habits of thought.

It really does take a lot to become and remain overweight.

Weight loss: connecting the dots

The basics of weight gain and loss are simple. I eat an average daily amount of food. If it’s more than I physically need, I gain weight. If it’s less, I lose weight. If it’s equivalent I maintain weight.

Since I’m currently overweight, that average daily amount has been more than I need. I’ve been decreasing the amount I eat, and sure enough my weight is also slowly decreasing.

Some people adjust their food intake with ease, but others of us find it difficult. When I had been overweight for most of my adult life I found it extremely difficult to decrease the amount I was eating sustainably.

In the end what helped me (and became the subject of my book) was a personal approach informed by my work as a philosopher.

Approaching weight loss as a process of discovery and personal meaning helped me, because that’s where I find enjoyment.

I turned weight loss from an exercise in caloric restriction into a kind of personal philosophical experiment and adventure.

And that’s why it’s a bit different for me now. You can’t have the exact same adventure twice, not when you’ve changed and grown in the process.

I’m more patient now. I know it just takes time for my body to catch up to my changed eating pattern. I’m also less intense. I accept that I’m still eating for pleasure at specific times, and I’m aware that I am deluding myself a little when I have some late night snacks.

But what I love about my approach is that I can’t hide from my own awareness and insight. I’m aware that I’m still slightly overweight and that I don’t like being overweight. And I’m also aware that when I snack I am ignoring those feelings temporarily.

This higher level consciousness grows over time and repeated experiences. There’s only so many times I can keep repeating the same actions and having the same unwanted outcome.

It’s just that I haven’t mindfully connected the dots between the brief sensation and distraction of the late night snack and the continued unwanted experience of being overweight.

But something has to give. If I’m really genuinely tired of being overweight and miss how my body feels when I’m in the normal range of BMI…I’ll bring that focus and feeling to mind next time I’m tempted to snack.