So I get on one wagon and fall off another.
My third official Raptitude experiment, 30 Days Without Drugs, was a resounding success in my eyes. I accomplished my goal and dismantled a persistent problem in my life. I’m now much less inclined to compromise my state of mind with the offhanded use of alcohol and caffeine. Now a month since the experiment ended, my lifestyle seems to be permanently changed for the better.
But during that time, I’ve slipped into an apathetic attitude towards food intake. I find myself eating more, and more often.
My workout routine also fell off the map, as it was already starting to by the end of my slightly less successful kettlebell experiment back in May and June.
As a result, I’ve put on an unappetizing ring of midsection fat. It shrunk while I was working out regularly, but now it’s back, trying to make me its permanent home. I want to get rid of it, which means getting rid of the habit that put it there.
It’s not that I’m ashamed of the way my body looks, I’m just disappointed in the poor habits that made it like this. My spare tire a fleshy beacon of my lapse in discipline. Last month I went on a Ben & Jerry’s bender of sorts, downing five or six pints in two weeks, while my kettlebells sat in the corner for a month, unused and unloved.
It’s a common pattern:
I decide it’s time to exercise daily again, so I set a date when I’ll start. Usually it’s a Monday.
Then I find myself steering well clear of exercise and eating with abandon, because it’s my last chance to be irresponsible in that way.
Then the start date gets bumped to a ‘better time.’
Weeks slip by. I get fat and working out becomes foreign again.
There is probably no more confusing a debate than “how to eat right.” Low-carb. No dairy. High dairy. South Beach. Atkins. Organic. Antioxidants. Omega-3s. Vegan until 6pm. Fasting. Raw. No salt. No sugar. One glass of wine, but no more. Chocolate is actually good for you. Chocolate is actually bad for you.
I have always thought that it is more important how and why you eat than the much-discussed what.
I know that I don’t only eat to sustain myself. I eat because it’s an easy, gratifying, comfortable thing to do. I’ve eaten because I’m bored, or because I wanted to avoid doing something else.
One of the worst habits I have is to eat until it is no longer pleasurable. In other words, I sometimes eat until I’m full. At that point, the stomach finally gets around to saying “I’ve had it!” and the urge to consume disappears. But by then it’s too late.
When we eat until we’re full, we eat more than we need. There seems to be a delay, maybe ten minutes or so, between when the stomach notices it has enough food and when it tells the brain that. During this ten minutes, a person can consume loads of extra calories that will only make them sluggish and eventually fatter.
This “delay effect” can be revealed if you simply interrupt your eating in the middle of a large meal, wait ten minutes, and then see if you’re still hungry. Chances are the food won’t be nearly as appealing as it was right after your last bite.
This is a good trick to avoid eating dessert. Let yourself have it, but not until you take a fifteen minute break. By that time, you’ll probably realize you’ve had enough, and you won’t want it. This is an example of what some nutritionists are calling defensive eating.
I want to harness the power of the delay effect, so I can consume fewer needless calories and lose the miniature life-preserver that’s grown on me this summer. Call it vanity, but I want to feel confident with no shirt on once again.
But I’m going to stray from common doctrine, and not worry about what I’m eating. Only how.
An online acquaintance once posted his recommended “diet” for people trying to lose fat. He specified no particular foods, only five simple rules for eating. From them I derived four of my own rules I will follow during the experiment, though the philosophy is the same:
1) Eat whatever you like. There are no foods to be avoided outright, except foods that make you feel sick. Listen to your body.
2) Never eat until you are full. Always stop at a moment when you still want to eat a bit more. This is the most important part of the diet. Again, listen to what the body says, not the mind.
3) Eat only when you are hungry. Never out of comfort or boredom. Do not eat within sixty minutes of the last time you stopped eating.
4) Water is the only drink. You may still consume any liquids you want, but they are to be treated like food.
Basically what I’m doing is this: never allow eating to leave me feeling less than good. For me that means throwing the “three square meals” tradition out the window. I’ve found I get hungry in the five hour stretches between breakfast and lunch and supper, unless I eat too much at those meals. These new rules will have me spread out the food intake, so that I never take in enough food to make me sluggish.
The most difficult part will certainly be stopping while I still want more food. I’ve found it hard, for example, to put away the cashews before I feel a giant knot sitting in my stomach, or turn down a second helping if the first one was so good. Stopping the bliss of eating while it is still blissful is going to take a staunch act of will. Every single meal.
I want to feel light after I’ve eaten. If the idea of doing something active (like exercising or riding a bike) makes me want to hurl, then I didn’t stop early enough. I want to feel light all the time.
Often I’ve overeaten simply because I didn’t want that cavernous empty stomach feeling before it’s time for the next meal. But with this experiment, I’ll simply eat something whenever I feel that, even if it’s just something small.
To be satiated with probably half the food I normally eat, I plan to take twice as long eating it. The concept of mindful eating is becoming more popular. In a nutshell, it’s simply paying attention to the act of eating while you do it. It’s very common to inhale food almost automatically if we don’t consciously slow down and observe the involved sensations.
Lessons From the Unfortunate
I discovered mindful eating while I was in high school, though I didn’t call it that at the time. I was reading the book All Quiet on the Western Front, an unsettling story about the pitifully undersupplied German soldiers in the First World War. Aside from the everyday horrors of trench warfare, they barely had the rations to keep them alive. Their situation had become so desperate that they raided the English trenches not to help the war effort, but to capture their enemy’s abundant tins of beans and corned beef.
Often I’d be eating a poppyseed bagel or some banana bread as I read about these poor boys, and it gave me a greatly renewed appreciation what what I did have. The food tasted better and lasted longer, and most curiously, made me full after much smaller amounts.
I felt gratitude whenever I sat down to eat, because I was pretending that I was a lanky, sad-sack German solider, lucky enough to score something substantial to eat. It really made the food seem precious. It was certainly easier to eat less.
I tried to keep this perspective, but the bad habit of mindless eating took over again, until I read an even more desperate story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This novella relates, in blunt detail, the struggles of one single day in the life of a prisoner in Siberia’s Gulag prison camps. The prisoners work all day and are fed stale bread and stew made of rotten fish. But they savor it.
Since he’d been in the camps Shukhov had thought many a time of the food they used to eat in the village — whole frying pans full of potatoes, porridge by the caldron, and, in the days before the kolkhoz, great hefty lumps of meat. Milk they used to lap up till their bellies were bursting. But he knew better now that he’d been inside. He’d learned to keep his whole mind on the food he was eating. Like now he was taking tiny little nibbles of bread, softening it with his tongue, and drawing in his cheeks as he sucked it. Dry black bread it was, but like that nothing could be tastier.
The book gave me perspective on how a little food can go such a long way, provided you are actually present for it. Pretending (or recognizing, perhaps) that your meal is a great privilege really makes it satisfying, even if you could eat more.
If I have trouble satisfying myself with less food, I’ll get into German soldier mode, or failing that, Russian prisoner mode, and even the smallest portion will be a feast.
The experiment will last 30 days, commencing Thursday, September 3rd and concluding Friday October 2nd.
I recognize that there will be times when I do want to overeat. After all, the occasional indulgence doesn’t hurt, only the habit of it is a problem. So I will allow for three meals during the month where I can eat until I’m sick if I want. One of them is already planned: a friend of mine is having a housewarming party, and he happens to be a fantastic chef, so I reserve the right to go to town on the deviled eggs and cannelloni.
These experiences will also serve the purpose of reminding me of the indigestion and discomfort that comes with overeating.
Kettlebell training, though not strictly a part of this experiment, will be in full swing again and I’ll post my workout results in the experiment log alongside my remarks about eating.
The primary goal is to get into the habit of eating just enough rather than too much, and thus develop the skill of defensive eating.
It would be a shame if I needed ten years in the Gulag to learn it.
The experiment is underway! See my progress here.
Photo by Phillie Casablanca