As a life long athlete I’ve always paid attention to what I eat. I picked up ideas here and there, and would emphasize eating or not eating what ever was demonstrated by the role model I happen to be inspired by at the moment. But there was no underlying foundation, no set of principles to guide my choices. My approach to food was definitely not thoroughly informed nor systematic.
Then, a few years ago I made a conscious decision to dive into the complexity of nutrition and start becoming educated in a deliberate way. I don’t know how close to ‘The Ideal’ my understanding is now because the more I go into this topic, the more I realize how complex the body in our modern environment really is. But my understanding is on more solid footing than it was before. I have a better map of how nutrition works and some idea of how genetics, age, medical history, and athletic specialization influence how we may approach feeding the body.
A Basic Rule
From this a basic rule has emerged:
Give my body as much as I can of the substances it needs for energy and repair. Avoid giving my body the substances that cause stress and harm.
The challenge in this simple two-sided rule is that most of our prepared foods have a mixture of benefit and harm in them, and if we are trying to pay attention to these, we find ourselves constantly putting in effort to make decisions that seem to require a compromise. We feel like we have to accept the harmful properties of the food we are eating in order to gain the benefits.
On top of this, we create or join in to cultural narratives that help us ignore or feel better about the harmful aspects of the foods we eat, even going so far as to tell us what is bad is actually good.
To further complicate the matter, some of the benefits we seek from eating are not even about nutrition and biology. They are psychological and social and cultural. We are eating many things, not because the body needs them, but because something in our mind says we need them.
One of the most obvious examples of this is eating dessert.
Why Eat Dessert?
About a year and a half ago, my mind must have been ripe for this insight and I suddenly realize I had no good reason to eat dessert, the kind we traditionally think of and serve as a treat after dinner or on special occasions, or between meals.
If I have eaten a sufficient meal, providing my body with the nutrients it needs, why am I adding more afterward? If I feel a bit more hungry, what specifically is my body needing that I didn’t give it enough of? Certainly, giving it sugar, salt, oil and refined flour and cheap carbs is a serious harm to my body with no biological benefit to compensate for it. If I feel the craving for dessert, what is this telling me about the story I believe in my head? If I feel pressure to eat something, what is this telling me about the story my culture is trying to have me adhere to?
I realized for myself, I have no biological reason to eat dessert. If I need certain micro-nutrients, I should add those nutrients specifically, in the whole foods they are most prevalent in. If I sense the need for more of a certain kind of macro-nutrient (quality carb, fat, or protein), then I need to alter the ratio of those in my meals. The more clean I eat, the more sensitive I become to the informative signals my body is sending about its specific nutritional needs. I am learning to read those signals and respond with adjustments in my regular nutrition.
It is fortunate that I don’t have to deal with internal craving for dessert other than the habit formed from growing up being served dessert and feeling that neural expectation for something sweet after a big evening meal. Once I realized this was just an easily replaced program in my brain, the craving went away after some weeks of denying it. This is a wonderful feature of the brain – it is ‘plastic’ and responds to pattern change. However, I have not experienced a form of trauma in life which tied food to comfort from pain, and I realize many people have. I have compassion for this and patience for what each has to work through. But the fact remains, that the foods most people use for comfort are harmful.
An Effortless ‘No Thanks.”
The thing I still have to deal with is the social pressure. But, even here, my family and closer friends have learned that I just don’t eat dessert. So they offer it ritualistically with a knowing smile or they just don’t offer it.
I make no comment about this at meals. I don’t preach it. I don’t get upset that others eat. When offered I just say, ‘No thanks,’ and maybe ask for a cup of herbal tea or a piece of fruit, so I can join in with something. If I feel any craving for it, I scan my body to determine the nature of that craving. If I need more nutrients of some sort I think about what I just ate and wonder how I might have changed my selection. If I feel a purely psychological craving, then I ponder the nature of that craving, wondering what it tells me about my self, or my social setting.
This hasn’t come about like some righteous religious conviction, that I need to prove to myself or others how clean or pure or self-controlled I am. It has been so much more effortless to do. It was more like a spiritual insight that my mind and body were finally ready for. One of the ways I can tell it is ‘spiritual’ and not ‘religious’ is that I don’t feel a fear about taking a bite. I do it out of love for my body, educated by what is truly good for it. Sometimes I do take that bite because I don’t want to cause discomfort to my unknowing host. I do that out of love for my host, privately accepting a temporary price I will pay. I just don’t feel an interest in eating it. If I happen to take a bite of something there is no guilt, no shame, no fear. I have just an awareness that my body will experience some stress and will have to expend resources to recover from it. That is enough incentive to avoid it if I can do so politely.
To exemplify that point, let me tell this story: Growing up, I have always asked for birthday pies rather than cake. My mother-in-law helped win my heart for her daughter by learning that I loved homemade apple pie and she has baked wonderful pies for me over the years. As I’ve made this switch away from sugar and then away from dessert, she has done her best to modify her recipe to suit me. Yet, I realize it would deny her this one special expression of affection she offers me with her particular skill for baking. So I accept from her and eat my sugar-free, gluten-free, naturally-sweetened apple pie for my birthdays.
I realize that as hard as I’ve worked to clean up my food, there is still a lot of liabilities in it – some things I will continue to improve and some harmful features of my food supply are likely unavoidable. I will keep doing what I understand to do and have the capacity to do, and trust that my body can recover from some level of stress that my food supply still imposes.
The eating of dessert has such a quickly fleeting pleasure and then a nearly immediate sense of unpleasantness following, because my body is now so sensitive to nutrition stress. So when faced with the culturally ever-present dessert – such an obvious source of stress on my body for so little benefit – the choice I need and now want to make is easy.
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