When do you “need” to eat?

I ate very little yesterday and this morning only had a coffee. By 10AM I was feeling lightheaded and dizzy – a common side-effect of fasting.

When I first developed my diet, lightheadedness was a sign that I needed to eat something to keep going.

But since then my circumstances have changed quite a bit, and I’ve changed too. So when I started to feel dizzy I didn’t immediately eat something.

Tiredness and fatigue are not purely physical. My mood has improved a lot in the past year, and I no longer feel as fatigued as I used to. Plus my life is far more active and busy than it was back then

What I’m getting at is that my circumstances, and my subjective sense of needing to eat something to keep going have both changed. I need to recalibrate.

This morning I decided to eat something because I was worried about driving while feeling dizzy.

It worked. The dizziness went away and I kept going, taking a trip to the beach with my daughter.

It will take more time for me to fine-tune this sense of when I need to eat.

In the meantime I decided to eat a small serving of dinner tonight with my family. My reasoning is that – as I mention in my book – eating serves a communal, social purpose. Also, it was never my intention to eat as little as possible or to fast to the point of dizziness.

Besides, when I first worked out this approach to diet I was much more overweight, on the verge of obese. This time around I’m only slightly overweight, and the difference between what I need to eat and how much I’ve been overeating is less stark.

The factors may be innumerable, but that’s why I love the approach of working things out myself, with both generalisable principles and personal circumstances in mind.

Escape by eating

Evening is when I eat the most.

I’ve gone for a few years skipping breakfast and lunch nearly every day. But dinner time is more of a challenge for me.

Last night I had a beer, a couple of plums, a small portion of risotto, an ice cream in a cone, and a large serve of watermelon.

I knew I was eating more than I needed when I had the risotto and the ice cream. Cravings hit later in the evening when the kids were in bed.

Again, the context of cravings is important. It’s late at night but there’s nothing much to do. I want to relax and losing myself in the sensations of eating is a good distraction.

But it doesn’t leave me feeling good in the longer term. If I don’t need the food to keep going, then I’m overeating. Since I’m overweight according to my BMI, this overeating is going to contribute to being overweight.

I’m not going to beat myself up for overeating. This process is not about losing weight as quickly as possible, it’s about having a healthy and mindful relationship with eating.

So even if I choose to eat for the pleasure of it, I’m now more aware than before of the dynamic taking place within me. I’m aware that cravings aren’t real hunger, and that they point to the presence of negative emotions, and to a lack of alternative sources of pleasure and fulfilment.

Although I overate, it’s not a loss, because I further tuned myself to my underlying motivations and physical signals.

Tonight when the cravings come again I will be more aware and preemptive of them. I might look for something more productive and engaging to do. And I might even gain some more insight into the negative emotions I’m trying to escape by eating.

Do what works for you

I want to quickly clarify that it’s never been my intention to skip breakfast and lunch. I’ve just never liked eating breakfast, and when I started my diet years ago I discovered that if I eat lunch I don’t need dinner.

If I was more active this would definitely change. Move more, you need more. My approach is just what has evolved to suit me, my circumstances and my physical needs. I’m sharing it as an indicator of where I’m at, not as a guideline to follow.

Eating is about context

I wasn’t planning on blogging my latest round of my diet, but it’s actually nice to share all the little reminders and ideas that come to me in this process.

Back in late 2016 I worked out an approach to weight-loss that worked for me. After years of struggling with weight and diet it was a big relief to finally gain clarity on this important subject.

I wrote a book about my discoveries in 2017, and since then I’ve been happy with my weight, enjoying the benefits of my process, with occasional tune-ups along the way.

That’s where I am now: I originally lost 20kg and dropped from an overweight BMI down to the normal range. But with enough time in the normal range (a couple of years) and some changing circumstances I’ve crept back into the overweight range.

Which is not a big deal. I have my process, and I know it works. Whether I gain weight or lose too much weight, my approach to diet has given me the lifelong tools to stop, reassess, and put my focus where it’s needed to restore balance.

So with that in mind I actually just came online to post another observation:

I’m constantly surprised how long I can keep going without needing to eat anything. And when I do need to eat something, it takes very little to get me going again.

But I’m also conscious that my BMI has been in the overweight category, and it makes sense that with so much stored energy available as fat, I really don’t need much food to keep me going.

As always, the words “keep going” remind me that life is meant to be about the many different things that bring fulfilment, meaning, and pleasure to our lives. Eating was never meant to be our dominant occupation in life; we simply don’t need that much.

That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy and appreciate good food when we do eat. It’s just a matter of context: how much we eat and how often, and what else is going on in our lives.

Hungry, tired, or just lacking stimulation?

It’s 1:54pm and so far today I’ve had two cups of coffee with milk and three cherry tomatoes.

I’ve taken one child to school (walking) and driven with another child to a few shops for some research.

In about an hour I’ll drive to do some grocery shopping, do the school pick up, come home and start preparing dinner.

I’m feeling tired, but I don’t actually feel hungry.

I’m in a really good place for observing how I feel. Can I keep going without eating right now? Easily.

I need to drink more water, but apart from that, I’m noticing that the tiredness is not actually about hunger but interest.

It’s a mindset issue that would have previously been buried under the distraction of eating more. The pleasure of eating provides a time-out and relief from other concerns.

I could instead have a black coffee for stimulation and enjoyment, or take the opportunity to wonder what other sources of pleasure and enjoyment are available to me right now.

I don’t actually need to eat. But I’m also not rigidly trying to meet an arbitrary diet goal. I’m free to do what I want, but with enough self-awareness and experience to know that food isn’t going to provide what I want right now.

The power of refusing food

The most powerful moment in my diet is when I refuse food that I would normally have eaten, because I’ve checked in with my body and observed that I can keep going without it.

These moments are exciting because they show that the recalibration is happening. They are empowering because they demonstrate real change in behaviour, in accordance with my new understanding of how my body works and what food is for.

It feels really good to not eat food I would previously have eaten without a second thought, and there’s even a sense of curiosity about when I will need more food to keep me going, and how much or how little that will take.

Saying no in these moments also makes it easier to see through cravings when they hit. It gets clearer and clearer that cravings are not about hunger, because I’ve been listening to my body’s signals and I know I can keep going without more food right now.

Dealing with cravings

It’s daunting to imagine eating for sustenance rather than entertainment or escape.

And even when you’re committed to this approach, it’s another story when cravings hit.

Cravings can feel like a visceral need to eat something. They can be hard to resist. So let’s look at them from a different angle.

First, if you’re feeling a craving to eat, congratulate yourself because this means the diet is working. You’re able to distinguish between genuine hunger and craving for food.

Second, don’t beat yourself up for feeling cravings. Even if you succumb to them, don’t beat yourself up. Because you’ve spent months or years or even decades using food to entertain yourself or escape. Accept that it will take time to change your behaviour.

Third, recognise that the unpleasant feeling of craving is an emotion you’ve been escaping by eating. It’s not just a craving for food after all, it’s a highly contextual impulse to distract yourself from what you are feeling.

So look at the context. For me it used to be after work. Sitting down to eat with a glass of wine, tasty food I could eat a lot of in large servings.

What happened when I tried to stop eating so much in this context? I was immediately struck by unpleasant feelings that came from hating my work and feeling like it was pointless.

I used food to help me forget about the work day, but also to distract me from feelings of emptiness at home.

After all, if I wasn’t eating then what else was I going to do? What was there to look forward to apart from the pleasure and distraction of eating?

What I interpreted as a craving that was satisfied by food was actually negative thoughts and feelings about my life that were easily buried by the immersive experience of food.

This is why many people snack when they are bored. They are trying to block out the negative feelings of: not enough sources of happiness and pleasure in life, not enough to look forward to, negative beliefs about life’s meaning and purpose, loneliness, lack of stimulation and so on.

So don’t beat yourself up. Appreciate how the cravings confirm the work you are doing to better understand your own relationship with food. And give some thought to the broader context of the craving, and to the breadth and richness of experience that might be lacking in your life.

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.

Revisiting the ideal diet

Back in October 2016 I did a follow-up on my diet. Four or so months on, my weight still hasn’t changed despite making no real effort to control intake or exercise.

I’m proud of this diet I’ve created, not only because it works so well, but because I created it by doing what I do best: analysing a problem, breaking it down to its most basic principles, and finding a radical solution informed by those insights.

Radical comes from radix, meaning root. So a radical solution is one that goes to the roots of the problem.

When it comes to being overweight, the root of the problem is excessive intake of food. People eat for many different reasons, but the only truly essential reason – the purpose of eating – is to sustain us physically.

Being overweight is typically the result of eating for reasons other than sustenance. Eating for pleasure, for escape from unpleasant feelings, for camaraderie, or just out of long-established habits. These behaviours distort our sense of hunger, loading it with emotional needs that go beyond the simple goal of having enough energy to live.

One rule

When we consistently overeat, we forget what it is like to feel genuine hunger. Between breakfast, lunch, dinner, and various snacks, our digestive systems are never really empty. We overeat at every opportunity.

What we really need is to calibrate our sense of hunger, emptiness and fullness. Calibrate it by going without food for a while. Eat nothing until you begin to feel physically tired, a bit shaky, a bit irritable, a bit weak.

That’s your new set-point of hunger.

When you feel that weakness, tiredness, failure to concentrate and irritability, you can eat something. You can eat one bite of something.

One bite is all you’ll need to stave off the hunger and replenish your energy.

Thus the one rule of my diet: only eat enough at any given time to stave off the symptoms of actual hunger.

Can I keep going?

So you’re feeling a little hungry, you’re starting to experience the physical symptoms, and you’re considering eating something.

Before you do that, ask yourself “Can I keep going?”

Often the answer is “Yes”. Our reserves are much greater than we think, especially if we are already overweight.

This doesn’t mean we should keep going to the point of exhaustion. No, the whole point is to sustain our energy levels throughout the day so we can maintain a sound performance in our daily activities.

If your daily activity is sitting at a computer, you probably don’t need much to sustain you. If your daily activity is working in a factory or digging ditches, you’re going to need a bit more.

You don’t want to reach a stage where you physically can’t function. But nor do you want to use the first sign of tiredness or boredom as an excuse to eat something.

Imagine your body is like a furnace. You want to keep it running efficiently by adding fuel as needed to maintain it at a constant temperature. You don’t want to overload it with too much fuel, nor do you want to wait until it nearly dies out before you add more fuel.

Your body will get the message

When you start to calibrate yourself according to the rule, you’ll find that your body responds positively to your new behaviour.

If you stop eating for entertainment, for escapism, to avoid waste, or to clean out the fridge of leftovers, your body will change.

There’s something powerful about declining food you would usually eat, declining it not because you’re stuffed full, not because you’re trying to force yourself to meet some arbitrary dietary regime, but because you recognise that your body doesn’t need it – and any other reason for eating is not good enough.

If you adhere to the rule, you’ll find that losing weight happens quickly and quietly.

The catch

Every diet has a catch, a hidden difficulty or challenge. In some diets you can eat whatever you want, but you have to carefully control portions. In other diets you can eat as much as you want of certain foods. These diets appeal to different aspects of our appetite and for some people they work.

The catch in my diet is that you’ll quickly discover the hidden emotional causes behind your normal eating habits. There are reasons why we eat more than we need to. The moment you decide to follow the rule of my diet, you’ll find yourself assailed by whatever fears and negative emotions usually motivate you to eat.

Perhaps you’ll experience an awful feeling of emptiness and pointlessness that you usually fill with food. Maybe you’ll discover you’re lonely, or bored, or depressed, or that you just don’t have enough sources of enjoyment in your life other than food.

It’s going to be painful. But at least you’ll know that it’s painful, why it’s painful, and that eating is not the answer. Even if you succumb to these feelings and overeat, you’ll do so knowing that you’re eating for emotional reasons, not real hunger.

Gradually you’ll learn to recategorise things. You’ll see that what you used to experience as “hunger” is actually boredom, fear, emptiness, sadness, or similar.

In this sense, my diet is more demanding than others. But at least the demands are clear.

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.

More dieting tips

(Following on from the previous post)

It’s important to make the link between unhappiness and frustration at being overweight, and the pleasure and mindlessness of escapist eating.

Most of us feel bad about being overweight. We don’t like our appearance, or what it says about our relationship with food or how we relate to ourselves.

But we usually only feel bad when we notice our appearance. We quickly forget about it, which in itself implies escapism. Overweight people are rarely constantly unhappy.

Yet the unhappiness and dissatisfaction at being overweight is a powerful motive for change. In fact, we might go so far as to say that most overweight people are insufficiently unhappy or dissatisfied with their appearance. Most of us feel sudden pangs of embarrassment or dismay, but it passes.

If we were serious about losing weight, improving our appearance, and changing our relationship with food, we would cling to that unhappiness, embarrassment and other negative emotions like a gift. But instead we endure them briefly, feel bad about ourselves, get distracted, and end up losing ourselves in the pleasure of eating once again.

Those negative emotions are always stalking you anyway, why not put them to good use? Bring them to the forefront of your mind. The next time you feel dismayed or ashamed of being overweight; the next time you recognise that rolls of fat are unbecoming; the next time you find yourself frustrated at clothes that no longer fit, take that dissatisfaction and dismay and hold on to them at least as far as your next meal.

Hold on to those negative emotions the next time you approach your food, and refuse the opportunity to escape the negative emotion, to wipe it away with taste, texture, aroma, and the little rituals of eating.

Hold on to your unhappiness the next time you see a piece of cake or a bowl of curry, and ask yourself whether you actually need to eat something now, or if you are just eating for pleasure. You know where eating for pleasure has brought you. Try something different for a while.

Bear in mind there is nothing easy about this. Escapist eating implies a state of mind that does not easily find alternative sources of happiness and pleasure in life. It may imply depression or anxiety, or other disturbances.

But the underlying logic is hard to escape: if you are unhappy about being overweight, yet you continue to eat in excess, then there is something incoherent in your experience and your intentions. Coherence implies a reconciliation of these conflicting aims: either eat appropriately, or stop feeling bad about the physical consequences of excess.

Looking back, it proved helpful to me to dwell more on the unhappiness I felt at my appearance and my weight, and to extend that unhappiness into a critical analysis of my eating habits. Since weight and eating habits are so intimately related, it became clear that something was “going wrong” when I ate. That “going wrong” proved to be escapism.

Why else do people eat when they do not need to eat, and when the consequences of such unnecessary and excessive eating bring them unhappiness?

There’s a cake sitting on the table to my right. It is tasty and looks appetising, and I find myself drawn to eat some of it. But why do I want to eat it? Honestly I am not hungry – I could just as easily not eat it and continue with my work. But I still experience a desire to eat it, as though part of me believes eating it will be a wonderful pleasure.

Perhaps eating the cake would be pleasant. But why am I in such dire need of pleasure right now? Am I unhappy, bored, dissatisfied, frustrated, angry, sad, or afraid? Is my life so unpleasant that I feel the need to eat cake just to lift my base mood, despite knowing that the temporary pleasure of eating it will contribute to future unhappiness of being overweight?

And what is it precisely about the eating of the cake that will bring such pleasure? Is it the sweetness of the sugar, the moist and crunchy textures, the flavour of banana, hazelnut, and cinnamon, the caramelized golden syrup? Or is it just the movement of my jaw, the process of eating, the feeling of something in my stomach?

But I know from past experience that if I eat a piece of cake I might then be tempted to have some leftover curry. And later this evening I will be sorely tempted to cook some pasta, and eat some ice-cream.  It isn’t the cake per se, just that the cake happens to be the nearest and most enticing object of temptation at the present moment.

What all of those eating experiences have in common is that they take me away from the present moment. They offer an escape from whatever I happen to be feeling or not feeling right now, even though the escape is temporary and the consequences are themselves a cause of future unhappiness.

The unhappiness is more real than the escape, and there is more to be gained in facing reality than indulging in fleeting escapist pleasures.  Besides, most of us have already tried escaping, and we know what it brings. Rarely do we bring ourselves to try the experience of unhappiness and see where it leads.

If you try this, or work out your own approach, you will eventually find that you can tell the difference between eating for escape and eating to quell genuine hunger. Many of us have not experienced genuine hunger for years, if ever. We go from meal to meal without our digestive systems ever getting close to empty. We eat till we are overfull, and get “hungry” when we’re able to eat some more.

There are surely a number of ways to lose weight and stop escapist eating. This is the one I’ve found most valuable, because it doesn’t attempt to “cheat” and it forces us into a more honest experience of our own feelings. That being said, I’ve let it slide over the last few months. It’s easy to lapse into eating for the sake of pleasure, and the escapism this entails. At the same time, being aware of and accepting of your negative emotions is inherently challenging.

But imagine what it might be like to stop escaping from the problems and dissatisfactions in your life for once, and refuse the easy, self-destructive escapes that life offers?