Another experiment has come to an end, but as usual, I’m not going right back to what I was doing beforehand. Just like my last experiment, 30 Days Without Drugs, one of the habits in my life has been permanently renegotiated.
To recap, a month ago I decided I’d go thirty days eating defensively. That means no indiscriminate eating. I defined four rules to govern my eating during that month:
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.
These rules served me well, and prevented a lot of needless and excessive eating, but each had its loopholes and grey areas.
“Full” is a subjective term. There is a long continuum of fullness levels, and I found that it is quite possible to overeat even if you never get “full.”
I used to define “full” as the point where eating loses its fun. After the second piece of pumpkin pie, the thought of a third is revolting; that’s “full.” But during my experiment, I stayed well away from that degree of overeating, yet I still ate more than I needed on many occasions. “Almost full” is also too much.
Although I mentioned the concept of mindful eating during my original post, I did not incorporate it into my rules, so many times I made no point of being mindful while I ate. In hindsight, I should have included it as one of the rules. It would have slowed the eating process and encouraged me to stop earlier.
Eating only when I was hungry was difficult, but not for the reasons I thought. It actually never came down to the issue of temptation. I was always able to turn down food when I had set the intention to do so. But I was unprepared for the friction between my intentions and the cultural landscape surrounding eating.
For example, the eight-hour workday is geared specifically for the “three square meals” system. You eat something before going to work (breakfast,) your only lengthy break is at noon (lunch) and you’re hungry by the time you get home, so you eat (supper.) I felt a bit weird making toast in the office at 10am and chopping up fruit at 3pm.
I did lose a noticeable (to me) amount of bodyfat, but I could have lost more if my rules had been a little more definite. There was quite a range of eating habits that all would have been acceptable under the rules I chose, so often I didn’t quite know where to draw the line, even though I was always stopping well short of “full.” For example, because I was eating more often, there were many days when I knew I was eating quite a lot of calories, even though I never ate too much in one sitting.
I could have been more aggressive with my caloric restriction, but I never defined exactly how strict I would be with that, and so my results weren’t exactly astounding in the fat loss department.
But that wasn’t really the point. The goal, as always, was to examine and renegotiate one of my habits. And to that end, mission accomplished.
What I Learned
It feels good to eat light. Digestion takes a lot of the body’s available energy, and it’s well-known that eating makes you tired. I got used to eating just enough that it didn’t effect my energy level much. It was quite a contrast to what I was used to. I felt light and energetic all day, which meant I could do just about any of my daily tasks at any time, I didn’t have to avoid the most demanding activities after supper. I seldom hit the 3pm “wall.” Light is how I want to feel all the time, and with a careful approach to eating, it can be done.
Eating more often makes it easy to eat too much in total. This is one of the first things I noticed. I began to pack my lunch differently; it was split up into a small lunch and two snacks, rather than just a big lunch. But I seemed to be bringing more food in total. Each meal is another chance to overshoot the intended goal, and if you do it six times a day instead of three, it’s very easy to eat just as many calories.
It is logistically difficult to eat only when your body wants you to. Initially I envisioned going about my day, and eating something small whenever I felt that cavernous empty stomach feeling. But it’s hard to get the timing right. An apple and some nuts will only stop a stomach from growling for an hour or so, so either I’d have to eat more each time, or eat more often, and both seemed to lead me to eating more food than normal.
As well, social engagements are often not timed well to accommodate a pattern of eating every three hours. Having only had three or four hundred calories for my last meal, I found myself always thinking about food when other people seemed not to be. Their big dinner would still be sustaining them at 10pm, while I was already planning a way to escape and find some food.
Culture influences much of how, when and what we eat. I mentioned the influence the 8-hour workday has on how people eat, but there’s more to it than that.
Eating mindfully is difficult to do within the bounds of Western eating customs. Hot food becomes a unappetizingly lukewarm when you take the pace of a mindful eater. It’s also a bit uncomfortable to have a table full of people finished and waiting while you’re only a third of the way into your meal.
Restaurant portions are based on the Three Squares system. When you’re out to eat with clients (or even friends,) it’s also kind of weird to be ordering an appetizer or half-portion for your meal. In most of those situations, I ordered a regular meal, and often finished most of it to avoid the ordeal of having to explain my experiment (though I always stayed shy of ‘full.’)
Intention is half the battle. Whenever I approached an eating situation, I tried to remember to turn on defensive eating mode. Often, just remembering my experiment was enough to make it fairly easy to refrain from eating unnecessarily. I would ask “Do I really need this?” and that was usually enough to convince me not to bother.
There were times when my experiment was not at the front of my mind, and in those cases, my habits were happy to take over. I could eat pretzels and taco chips without even really thinking about it.
There are hidden habits at play. One thing that was difficult to get over was the fear of wasting food. I’ve always felt it was some small tragedy to scrape perfectly good food into the garbage can. It was hard to leave uneaten portions sitting there for that reason alone.
Now, I know that it isn’t any less a waste to eat excess food than to throw it out. I don’t need the calories, so they’re better off in a garbage can, rather than using my body as the receptacle. But still, it felt wrong to leave food when I knew I could just eat it. This was a much more powerful compulsion than I expected, I guess it was a result of many years of being told to finish everything on my plate.
At home I could often wrap up the rest for later, but I discovered another habit there. I hate wrapping stuff up when there’s only a small amount of it left. It felt dumb to store a few tablespoons of kasha for later, so often I’d just eat it then. There are reasons for overeating that have nothing to do with actually wanting to eat the food itself.
I was also still in the habit of putting a hefty amount of food on my plate, and sometimes it would already be there by the time I realized how much I was really taking. A lot of behavior surrounding eating is almost automatic because of how much practice we get.
Experiments need hard edges. My most successful experiment so far was my drug-free month, and after this latest experiment, I see why. Out of the four I’ve done, it was the one with a definite binary goal. It was either an X or a checkmark every day; there was no ambiguity about it. It had the most profound effect on my behavior and it is the one I’m most proud of.
In the other three experiments, there was always room to stretch the boundaries a bit. There was too much leeway here, and I think it tempered the effects. Lesson learned.
A New Philosophy
This latest experiment has certainly changed the way I eat, but it could have used a more definite mandate. In the future I will establish clear criteria for whether I stuck to it or not.
That said, defensive eating has become my philosophy now, and I feel like I’m much more in control of how I eat. I do not really enjoy eating until I’m stuffed anymore, it’s just too unpleasant and unnecessary. Successful restraint is a skill, and it feels good to pull it off. A little practice goes a long way.
I do think it pays to do it once in a while though, to remember the sluggishness and indigestion, the same “never again” feeling you get after drinking too much for the last time. Again.
I find it alarming that I was so casual with what I ate before. Eating, though we are all very familiar with it, is a very intimate and consequential act if you think about it objectively. You’re picking up a substance and putting it in your mouth! Are you sure you should be doing that?! The substance then becomes a part of your body, at least partly.
Yet we do it so casually, often without really thinking about it. For what it’s worth, now I do think about it. If I take nothing else from this experiment, it’s that moment of questioning before I put something in my mouth. Do I need this? Why not not eat it?
I’m not at 100% with that reflex yet, but I’m getting there. I slow down. I enjoy smaller amounts of food more. I feel grateful when I eat. Food has been so good to me, and I finally feel like I’m starting to give it the respect it deserves.
Photo by malias