The Self-Control Sandwich

Food is complicated as f*ck.  For me it's a combination of fun and frustration slathered in steamed temptation, stuffed in a sandwich of self control.  There's so many factors that go into the decisions we make regarding food; we have to choose if we want to follow a specific diet, decide when to eat, worry about portion control, balancing out our macros, monitor how fast we eat, pay attention to where our food is sourced and if we have any allergies or dietary restrictions to food, all while trying to stay within a certain budget.  Food is meant to nourish our bodies, to provide vital energy to our biological mechanisms. Food is by nature a survival instinct, it's meant to be intuitive, but our society has turned it into a glorified game of tug of war.  

If all of these factors aren't enough to overwhelm you, there's the added complexity of emotional eating that can throw a curve ball to your dietary decisions at any time.  If you've read any of my other blog posts, you know I have a weakness for cheese puffs, chocolate and most other foods that fall in the junk food category.  But what I've noticed is that I only crave these foods when I'm feeling stressed or emotionally exhausted.  I reach for these foods out of comfort, searching for that nourishing satisfaction to distract me from the common unpleasantness of being human.  I have more energy and feel better about myself when I don't eat these foods, however the cravings for junk food are always stronger than the rewards of a healthy diet.  I can't even begin to count how many times after I've eaten junk food I've said to myself "never again!" but I ALWAYS go back. It's completely mind boggling to me that we as humans have to make multiple decisions each day that have a direct impact on the health and well being of our bodies and minds.  So I'm going to write this blog post in an attempt to sort through my shit, maybe you can relate.  

Educating myself has been really helpful in my search for clarity around the food game.  After reading "The Kind Diet" by Alisha Silverstone (don't judge, she's not actually clueless) back in 2010, I gave up meat immediately.  If you've ever thought about giving up meat but haven't found the will power, her story is VERY compelling.  A few years later I brought fish back, because I needed protein and a little more freedom, but it's been almost 8 years of no meat and aside from a few dreams about cheese burgers and cravings for hot wings it hasn't been much of a struggle.  My achilles heel is eating a balanced diet.  I have a habit of over eating, and not consuming enough veggies.  Carbs are just easier, faster and cheaper.  Although I find carbs delicious and satisfying in the moment, they aren't sustainable. Studies show that consumption of processed foods and sugar are linked to depression, anxiety, cancer, weight gain, digestive issues...basically death.  Yet I still crave them, my body is addicted to carbs.  This is why I have to read about how bad they are, to remind myself why I (try to) make healthy decisions.  When I let myself be an uneducated eater, I make bad decisions.

In Michael Pollens book "In Defense of Food" he offers a few noteworthy guidelines for embarking on a healthy and sustainable life of consumption.  One of his suggestions that really resonated with me was 'don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize' or for some of us, your great-great grandmother...Either way, the idea is when walking the anxiety laden aisles of the super market, only purchasing items that would have been around when our great grandmother was doing the same thing.  In the era of our great grandmothers, food was simple; meat/fish/vegetables/grains/dairy.  During this time, obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc. were not nearly as prevalent as they are today.  While it may seem difficult to stick to a diet lacking modern conveniences, for me it almost feels like a connection to the past, a rebellion against all of the complete shit that our society tries to dump down our throats.  Also it's hell of a lot easier than some of the fad diets out there...I can still eat chocolate!

The other BIG issue for me is eating mindlessly, most of my daily meals are either on the run or at home by myself.  So I'm either scarfing down food before heading to the next class or sitting in front of the TV with no connection to how long I've been eating or how much I've consumed (queue cheese puff abomination), I'm sure many of you can relate...when we're not taking the time to actually enjoy the food we're ingesting we don't have the consciousness to know when we're satisfied and nourished.  It takes discipline and dedication to find balance.  This is still something I'm working on, but I have been able to make some changes that allow for better decision making: 

  1. I (try) to start my day with yoga.  My mysore practice has brought a lot of mindfulness to my daily life.  When I start my day with a strong sweaty practice, I feel accomplished and have a clear mind.  I have the ability to make better decisions because I've created this deeper connection between my mind and my body.
  2. I've implemented a routine.  My schedule isn't super conducive to routine, so it's not a daily routine, but I have established routine within each day.  I know what food I need for each day and when I need to buy it or prepare it.  Instead of trying to grocery shop for the entire week and overwhelm myself, I just go every few days.  I plan out what I need for a day or two instead of committing myself to an eating schedule for a full week.  It feels more manageable.  
  3. I eat dinner early.  Since I teach at night I got into the habit of coming home at 8:30 or 9pm and eating dinner super late.  If I haven't had anything to eat since lunch I would find myself on an eating rampage.  Once I start I can't stop.  So eating before class (sometimes as early at 4:30) really helped.  I'm not starving when I get home anymore and I can usually go to bed with a light snack or nothing at all.  I sleep better and I feel way better when I wake up in the morning.
  4. I talk to my therapist about my shit.  Literally talking about all of the crap that swirls around in my head all day has curbed my emotional eating dramatically.  I only binge on cheese puffs around once a month now instead of once a week (I'm human).  I have more mindfulness around what is a craving and what is hunger.   I'm able to sit with my emotional need to eat instead of immediately giving in to it.  I'm slowly working through this deep rooted defense mechanism.  Although it's a slow process, I've found compassion for myself when I do need to give in to the cravings and that is a new and welcome experience. 

I've learned that maintaining a nourishing and healthy diet requires mindfulness.  We need to make decisions based on the knowledge that food is fuel.  The food we eat literally provides the energy that produces the blood that oxygenates our body.   Do you want your blood to be made of cheese puffs??  I sure don't.

The hard truth is that food will be a struggle for the rest of my life.  I'm not going to kid myself into thinking I can get rid of my junk food cravings, they will always be there and my goal is not to overpower them, it's to find compassion for the root of my cravings, letting go of judgement and giving in when I need to, but remaining mindful all the while.