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.

Just-a-taste strategy

I skip breakfast because I can’t stand the thought of it in the mornings.

I skip lunch because I don’t need it, and I’ve found that if I do eat some lunch I don’t need any dinner.

I cook dinner for my wife and kids most nights, and I tend to enjoy it more when I’m a little hungry myself!

So that leaves dinner as my main meal. We all sit down together and eat the food I’ve prepared.

But now that I’m mindful of not overeating, what should I do if I find I can keep going without eating?

I’ve tried skipping dinner but that doesn’t seem right. The point of this diet is to find balance and there’s nothing balanced about fasting.

Even intermittent fasting is too arbitrary for my preference.

No, for me the solution is to eat some dinner. Try some of the delicious food I’ve made and share this time together with my family….but do so with a ridiculously small portion.

If I’ve made pizza, taste just enough to appreciate the flavour and the texture. It doesn’t take much at all. If I’ve made pasta, a spoonful of the sauce would be enough.

If this sounds too severe, that’s fine. But for me it doesn’t make sense to eat a large portion of food just for the enjoyment. If you can enjoy a tiny amount you will savour it more. Repeat performances in the form of larger servings take us back into “eating for pleasure” territory.

So in the name of balance my solution is to eat just enough to sample the food and join with my family in eating it, but nowhere near enough to turn it into a pleasure-seeking activity through overeating.

It is not easy at first. But the whole point is to bring our eating habits and bodyweight back into balance. That can’t be accomplished if we are, while overweight, allowing ourselves to overeat for the sake of pleasure.

I’ve done it before, and I will do it again. However tantalising the food may be, I am placing greater value on finding a more enriching life that does not depend so heavily on the pleasure of eating.

To look at it from a different perspective: what pleasures and joys and fulfilment have I neglected to find in my life, preferring instead the more easily accessible pleasure of eating to excess? What needs have gone unmet or unacknowledged because I have found immediate distraction in large quantities of tasty food?

That’s a question I can’t begin to answer on a full stomach.

My first non-fiction ebook!

When I tell people I’ve been writing a diet book they’re typically speechless.

I choose to interpret their reaction as one of awestruck silence.

Awestruck is incidentally how I felt when I came across the photograph that now adorns the cover of my new ebook, The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet.

I’m also pretty proud of the book itself. It’s not a long book at only 14,000 words, but it’s the culmination of several years of thinking about body weight and the psychology and ethics of eating.

But more than anything it reflects my own success in using my insights and reasoning as a philosopher to help me lose weight without trying. That is, I lost 20kg without feeling like I was trying to lose weight, and I did it in the firm conviction that if I truly understood the whole dynamic of eating and body weight it would change my mind, my relationship with food, and my whole life.

A quick shout-out to my former PhD supervisor Dr John Quilter: this probably isn’t the continuation of my work on free will, intellectualism and voluntarism you were expecting, but on the other hand I bet it’s the only diet book in existence that explicitly asserts “To know the good is to do the good!”

Like anything in life, this book won’t be for everyone. But if you or someone you know is thoroughly sick of the confusion and mixed-messages surrounding dieting and weight loss, or despondent and demotivated at the very thought of losing weight, my book may be exactly what you need.

I’ve been overweight for more than half my life, all my adult life until now. At my worst I was over 100kgs, right at the cusp of obesity according to my BMI (Body Mass Index). I’m now well into the normal range, and my weight stays consistently at or under 85kg.

In hindsight, I used to be someone who valued the enjoyment of eating so highly that I would never turn down good food unless I was physically incapable of eating it. I never understood people who could say no to a second helping of something delicious, or who could refuse a treat. I never even imagined I could be one of those people.

I finally found an approach to eating that makes sense, and I gradually changed my eating habits. I still enjoy food, and I still occasionally overeat. But most of the time my eating habits reflect my body’s actual needs in that moment. Isn’t that the ideal?

But for me the best part is that it’s not about weight anymore. In fact my weight loss really took off when I stopped thinking about it, and focused instead on the deeper motivations and dynamic that was driving my dysfunctional attitude to food.

In the end, being overweight was a symptom of that dysfunctional relationship with food. Weight loss is such a struggle because we expend most of our energy fighting a symptom instead of looking at the root cause.

The Weight-Loss Paradox: an Enlightened Approach to Body Weight and Diet is available exclusively on amazon kindle. If you don’t have a kindle, you can download a free kindle app that lets you read kindle ebooks on your PC or Mac, android or iOS devices. So you can buy the book at Amazon and then download it to the app on your preferred device.

Do you like being overweight?

Embed from Getty Images

Hopefully this will be the final in my series on dieting.

If you’ve followed it so far, you should appreciate the distinction between eating out of hunger and eating to gratify the appetite.

If you are overweight, then you are (all things being equal) eating excessively, and this excessive eating is motivated by the appetite, which demands gratification regardless of the physical and psychological consequences.

If you don’t like being overweight, if looking in the mirror fills you with dismay at how much excess weight you are carrying, then use that dissatisfaction to help you clarify your eating habits.

Each time you go to eat something – even if it be something healthy like a tomato or carrot – stop and check whether or not you are still overweight. If you are still overweight, are you still unhappy with this situation? If you are still unhappy with this situation, could you perhaps not eat any more food for now, and thereby stop contributing to the situation that makes you unhappy?

Appetite has ways of clouding your judgement, so although this line of questioning might seem harsh, it is necessarily harsh.

If you stick to it, you will eventually find that your body does need food at times, even if you are still overweight. You will get to a point where the question “can I go on without eating?” is met in the negative. But even so, it then requires only the smallest amount of food to keep you going.

This isn’t just a change in the amount of raw calories consumed, it’s also a change to your relationship with food, or to be more precise, your relationship with your appetite.

You will probably discover that there are numerous unexpected ways in which you gratify your appetite. Even healthy foods can gratify it.

What you’re fasting from is not the food so much as the craving appetite that drives you.It can be a fearsome opponent, so don’t be afraid to really use your displeasure with your appearance to motivate you.

Bring your eating back to the question of whether you are still overweight, whether you are still unhappy about being fat.

If you really are overweight, there’s nothing wrong with being unhappy about it, not liking the way your body looks.

We’re told that obesity is a disease, and, well, diseases often look bad; ill-health often looks bad; gluttony usually looks bad.  It’s nothing personal, just nature.

You wince when you see a terrible sunburn on your neck or face, so of course you wince when you see your abdomen protruding beyond its healthy limits.

When you go to eat, check to see whether you are still overweight or not. If you are, don’t eat unless you are literally shaking with fatigue, and then have only a bite or two.

Don’t eat for the pleasure it brings, or at least let the pleasure be subdued by your dismay at being unattractively overweight.

We’re told not to feel ashamed of being overweight, and I’m not advocating that you begin to feel ashamed if you don’t already. Rather, most people already do feel ashamed, so they might as well put the shame to good use.

As I mentioned before (I think), apart from the problem of being overweight, there’s the problem of being unhappy about it, yet doing nothing to change it. If I really don’t like being overweight, surely that would motivate me to change the most basic cause of weight-gain: consumption.

It would, or it could, if it weren’t for the alluring escapism provided by the appetite, something that needs to be reined in if we are to successfully alter our relationship with food.

Dieting Tips

Trying to reinvigorate my diet after letting it slide for a few months, I’m slowly remembering the key points.

Firstly, normal diets attempt to “cheat” in some way. They control quantities, but allow you to eat whatever type of food you like. Or they control the type of food, but let you eat as much as you like of those types. These diets avoid the pain of refusing to indulge your appetite.

Secondly, we like to indulge our appetite because it allows us to escape from painful, dull, or otherwise unpleasant experiences of reality. Escaping from such experiences means we do not address the underlying disquiet or suffering or lack of enthusiasm in our lives. It is important to recognise that flavours, mouthfeel, texture, temperature, rituals and even the physical activity of eating can all be used as a distraction from reality.

Thirdly, food is not intrinsically enjoyable. The experience of eating is something we create actively with our own minds. Enjoyment requires attention, energy, and a degree of complicity as we actively savour and relish the eating experience.

This approach to dieting is painful and powerful because it goes right to the heart of the problem: identifying eating as a means of escaping from unpleasant aspects of reality.

For most of us, being overweight is an expression of our escapism.

Yet such escapism is self-defeating. The physical and psychological suffering will come back to haunt us in the form of illness, shame, and more unpleasant experiences. Escapism simply defers the pain, and deferring the pain is painful in its own right.

The thought of never again escaping into food and eating can be terrifying, and raises the prospect of a life empty of the significant enjoyment provided by food. But as the third point identified, this enjoyment is actually provided by our own minds, not by the food itself. Food merely provides us with an opportunity to focus on something that is safely detached from the unpleasant and complex problems and feelings we are trying to escape from in the first place.

The truly painful thing is that we cannot imagine living without the constant escape provided by food.  The actual amount of food required for us to continue living is very small, relative to what we typically consume. And yet the thought of giving up eating-for-enjoyment terrifies us.

Most of us feel bad when we see our own overweight bodies in mirrors or photographs. And there’s a push in society to stop feeling “ashamed” of our bodies, and to reject the unrealistic ideals provided by media and marketing. We’re told to love ourselves as we are.

This is good advice, but if we are eating to escape then we are not loving ourselves as we are. I used to feel bad when I saw how overweight I was, but when I think about dieting and escapism, I begin to see the fat as representative of how frequently I am escaping into food. I start to see it not as some horrible imperfection or source of shame, but as letting myself down by avoiding the unpleasant realities or thoughts or feelings that motivate the escapism in the first place.

Dieting seems extraordinarily hard because we imagine ourselves having to endure the painful realities of life without our favoured escape. But those realities remain painful precisely because we keep trying to escape them. It’s less painful to eat than to acknowledge that we feel life is going nowhere. But it’s far, far healthier and more empowering to acknowledge such fears and feelings than to escape into the temporary distraction of food.

What do we wish to become: someone good at escaping, or someone able to face our fears? This diet is, after all, not really about dieting. It’s about facing the fears, the stagnation, the difficult thoughts, feelings, and memories* we’ve been trying to escape.

*Some people’s realities are more painful than others’, and I’m obviously not a doctor, not even in philosophy, so don’t be afraid to seek professional help when dealing with painful, traumatic, or otherwise difficult experiences.

 

Life without indulgent eating

My latest piece at MercatorNet.com confides the inner workings of my gluttonous hedonism:

That the pleasure of eating serves as a surprisingly rich and enticing escape from the dreariness and banality of everyday life proved to me that self-indulgence was not merely a physical dysfunction but a spiritual one. For someone who spends nearly every waking moment thinking about things, the uncomplicated enjoyment of some moreish snack or delectable home-made dish offers a kind of peaceful respite from the interminable whirring of cognition.  Or as the 4th Century ascetic monk John Cassian wrote in rather less affirming terms:

“nor can the mind, when choked with the weight of food, keep the guidance and government of the thoughts… but excess of all kinds of food makes it weak and uncertain, and robs it of all its power of pure and clear contemplation.”

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/life-without-indulgent-eating