Author Archives: joeylott
Author Archives: joeylott
Somehow the cultural views of food have taken on strangely religious tones. We’re given all sorts of messages along these lines from both media outlets and from governmental and non-governmental organizations promoting “health” (such as the National Institutes of Health and the American Heart Association):
But for every argument there is a counter-argument. The American Heart Association still claims that saturated fat causes heart disease. Meanwhile, organizations such as the Weston A Price Foundation publish plenty of evidence in support of the notion that saturated fat is healthy. And then there are those such as Mark Sisson or Ray Peat (to give but two polar examples of those who share this viewpoint) that polyunsaturated fat is the real evil. The same goes for every so-called “health” claim you can think of. There are those who argue, quite convincingly, with studies to back them up, that green vegetables are dangerous, that vitamin C is dangerous, that refined grains are healthier than whole grains, and on and on. So given all the conflicting views, who are we to believe? Who are we to trust?
I suggest that it’s all a distraction. Food is neither good nor evil. Why turn something so wonderful into a religious conflict? Food provides nourishment and, dare I say, enjoyment to us humans. Why turn it into yet another reason to stress, something over which to worry if you’re on the right side or the wrong side?
I lived for decades in absolute terror of food. I was terrified that touching or even looking at or thinking about “forbidden” foods such as sugar or meat or refined carbohydrates or dairy would result in some sort of punishment of a vaguely religious or at least supernatural or magical nature. And then I finally decided, once and for all, to stop the madness. I decided to stop listening to the dietary pundits – the high priests of nutrition. I decided that I had had enough of the suffering, the agonizing over food choices. I was thoroughly exhausted from the years of debating. And I decided to just eat the food.
Eating sugar is neither heavenly nor hellish. White rice is simply white rice. Beef is the flesh of a cow, nothing less and nothing more. Fruit juice is merely the juice of fruit. Food is neither good nor evil in a moralistic sense. Though I have to say that food tastes quite good, amazingly good, when it’s exactly what I want to eat and when I eat it with pleasure and enjoyment rather than stress and anxiety.
What I am coming to realize more and more deeply with every day is that food is rarely the problem. Focusing on food as the problem is a huge distraction at best, and at worst it is devastating to the person who falls victim to obsessing over food. Stress, anxiety, and obsessive worry are the real killers. These are the things that lead people to disordered eating habits that undermine their health and happiness. And all the religiosity about food only serves to perpetuate and worsen the real problem. While I don’t doubt but what many (though certainly not all) of the dietary preachers are well-intended (much as many religious preachers are probably well-intended,) it is clear that they as they ascend in status and influence we cannot discount the power that their success has over them, blinding them to all points of view other than the one they promote. For example, Dean Ornish, M.D. having made such a huge name for himself in association with a plant-based diet (that occasionally allows for some animal products) is unlikely to start promoting a low-carb “Paleo” diet any time soon. Likewise, Robb Wolf, author of “The Paleo Solution” is unlikely to start advocating for a vegan diet any time soon.
But despite the fact that these nutritional giants have lots and lots of studies and science to back their claims, and despite the fact that there are those who obtain health benefits from the prescribed diets, the fact is that there are so many exceptions that it is impossible to make any rules. There are plenty of humans who live long, healthy, happy lives regardless of their diet or lifestyle. There are plenty of long-lived, healthy people who eat refined grain, meat, fruit, sugar, coffee, chocolate cake, ice cream, nightshades, etc. So it’s about time that we start telling the truth: those who are selling us dietary protocols aren’t omniscient, infallible gods who can steer us from evil toward good. They don’t know what your body needs. Only you do. There is no good or evil when it comes to food. There is only the food that you need versus the food you don’t need in this moment. And you can differentiate fairly easily: what food do you want? The food you want is the food you need.
In a religious view of the dietary landscape we’re led to believe that the food we desire is evil and sinful. I’ve read claims that if a person craves chocolate it is due to a magnesium deficiency and sugar cravings indicate a chromium deficiency. Really? This sounds suspiciously like the religious claims that sexual desire is sinful. We’re not such stupid creatures! Our bodies are amazingly intelligent. Perhaps a chocolate craving indicates that chocolate is the perfect food in that moment. Same with sugar. It only makes sense to suggest otherwise if there is an ideological bias against chocolate or sugar…perhaps because they are thought to be evil. But again, there is no such thing as good or evil when it comes to food. Food is food.
I’ve been thinking a lot about food and health lately. I’ve been thinking about how distorted and twisted my own thoughts about food were for decades – how that came to be and how I finally began to break free of that.
In the early 2000s I was living in Los Angeles. I was a committed vegan with a full-blown eating disorder, terrified of sugar, refined carbohydrates, and McDonald’s. I obviously had my own problems. But I remember thinking that the low carb stores (stores marketing exclusively to the low carb crowd that still wanted to eat “bread” and “cookies”) were indicative of a society with an unhealthy obsession over food. I remember thinking that I would never sink that low (carb.) But then, fast forward five years or so, and I was a dedicated low carber, now terrified of grain and potatoes, but suddenly without any problems eating (grass-fed, free-range, organic, local, etc.) beef and lamb. (Of course I wouldn’t touch pork or chicken because of the awful polyunsaturated fats!)
Over the years I have adhered to many extreme, strict diets – vegan, raw vegan, fruititarian, paleo, raw paleo, low-carb paleo, and others of my own devising. But when I look back on them, what I notice is that despite the superficial differences, what all of these dietary phases shared in common was obsession with purity and perfection and an unhealthy avoidance (terror, even) of “bad” or “unhealthy” or “unnatural” foods. I was blind to the completely irrational nature of the entire thing. I couldn’t see the folly of my own thinking or logic.
Over the past few years I’ve made conscious efforts to transform my attitudes and perspectives in regard to many things, not the least of which is food and eating. I had a rather revelatory thought some time ago: during my youth before I started to restrict food I enjoyed a great deal of energy and a great deal of passion. Furthermore, during my teenage years there were a few years during which, though I restricted in some ways, I still ate a tremendous amount of food (I must have averaged 4000+ calories daily) of a decent variety (though I was fairly serious about veganism at the time,) and during that time I also enjoyed lots of energy, a strong libido, and a lot of enjoyment in life. So maybe my strict adherence to all the “perfect” diets was the problem, not the solution. This was not the nicest thought to have had. But I couldn’t shake it because it rang true. So I decided to explore this thought some more.
Now, it could be that my health at those times was so relatively good simply because I was young. But I believe it is more likely that my health was good because I was eating enough and because I didn’t stress about the food. I ate tons of highly-processed commercial food products, including sugary cereals, refined grains, soda, and candy. In high school, during some of those “good” years I would routinely eat a loaf of white bread, a bag of pretzels, a bag of gummy candy, and a few heaping bowls of white rice all as snacks.in addition to my four main meals of the day. None of it was organic. All of it was the cheapest I could find. The meals were eaten in the school cafeteria, prepared by the second-lowest-bidding food provider – so you know that was all GMO, pesticide-laden, prepared in fluoride water, and ultra cheap. No “health food”. But I felt so much better then than I did during any of the years when I ate the ultra-pure, local, organic, spirulina-enriched, green-smoothie-friendly, grass-fed, whole grain food that I prepared in filtered water and ate with an attitude of gratitude, prayer, and mindfulness!
Over the past few years part of my strategy for healing has been to get rid of the rules. When I notice rules in any domain of my life, I get rid of them. This has been the most wonderful gift I have ever given myself. I stopped eating anything because I should and I stopped NOT eating anything because I shouldn’t. The only “rule” I have now that I keep around intentionally is simply this: eat.
I spent decades enmeshed in a very unpleasant lifestyle of secrecy, shame, and restriction. So it is an odd and novel experience for me now to actually have a perspective from which I can notice just how truly distorted the cultural attitudes toward food are. Previously I was too caught up in my own distortions to be able to have the perspective to see the strangeness of the way this culture views food. But now, suddenly, I can observe some interesting phenomena.
I was particularly vulnerable and susceptible to the cultural food-fear stresses when I was a boy. But what I now see is that those food-fear ideas are prevalent throughout the culture, and they never were unique to me. For years when I went to the grocery store I was so obsessed with finding acceptable and “pure” foods for myself that I never really noticed how strange things were getting more generally. But now when I go to the store I find that there are so many niches being marketed to – gluten-free, lactose-free, grain-free, paleo, low-carb, vegan, and even raw – that it’s actually getting difficult to find “normal” food. I was looking for pasta the other day, and I actually had to pay close attention to find regular, refined wheat pasta in amongst all the whole wheat, spelt, quinoa, soy, corn, and other new-fangled pastas! I look for snack foods like pretzels, and all I find are gluten-free varieties or salt-free varieties. Or if I look for chips, they’re all “air-baked” or made with “healthy vegetable oils” instead of how they used to be made – fried in tropical oils. They used to have flavor. Now they have “health.”
So I’m thinking that this food phobia, gluten-free, low carb, salt restricted, no cholesterol, vegan, perfectly pure and “healthy” culture is getting out of hand. Is it really working? Are the people any healthier or any happier for it? I would suggest that the answer is no. It’s not working. People aren’t healthier nor happier. People are starving for real, honest, tasty food.
We’ve been conned and tricked into all of this. There’s no proof that stressing about food and restricting will help you live longer or healthier lives. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that it will make your life bland, tasteless, and socially-awkward. And there’s a good chance it will lower your metabolism, screw up your hormones, destroy your digestion, and weaken your immune system.
So on the one hand it is comforting to know that it wasn’t ever entirely my fault: I grew up in a food-phobic culture that imposed its distorted values on me. Granted, I did pick up those values and take them to the extreme. So I’m not suggesting that I didn’t play a role it my own unhappiness. But while that is comforting on the one hand, it is also quite disturbing: the unhealthy, obsessive, and distorted (and dishonest) values of this food-phobic culture are growing ever more bizarre and continuing to affect millions and millions of innocent people. So I believe it is time that we stop telling ourselves these same old lies. It’s time we take a stand and take back our lives.
I consult with people who are experiencing challenges with health and happiness of all sorts. And it is disturbingly common for me to hear people report that their doctor, acupuncturist, personal trainer, or some other professional told them that they “must” go on a gluten-free diet or a low-carb diet or a paleo diet in order to solve their problems. These people universally report that once they followed the advice they felt worse! We should all be laughing the face of such advice rather than following it. We should marginalize all the bad advice. But because we live in a culture that keeps on validating all these crazy dietary extremes then we set ourselves up to be susceptible to the lies and persuasions.
What are the lies? Anything and everything that is not absolutely 100% incontestable and that reduces your happiness and health when you live according to it. Here are but a few examples of the lies:
There are just so many lies that we could spend all day listing them off and only scratch the surface. It’s endemic. And it is hurtful. It hurts us and it hurts future generations. Breaking free from these lies starts with each one of us. We must start to tell the truth in the face of the lies. We must stop believing the lies.
This is not always easy. I know. I ate that pasta that I mentioned earlier in this post (I was able to successfully find that good, old refined wheat pasta complete with gluten, carbohydrates, and very little fiber) earlier today (with cheese, glorious cheese!), and I had a momentary brain blip in which I thought to myself “what if this contains significant amounts of phytic acid!” I kid you not. That thought actually popped into my head. (That’s what I get for reading Mark Sisson’s blog for too long!) So these lies are insidious. But for me, that thought pops into my head, and I can let it go. I just relax my body and give no attention to the stressful thought. When I do this, I notice that there is so much space around the thought. In that space is infinite possibility – including the possibility that that pasta is delicious and the most perfect health food I could possibly eat in that moment. So I am free to enjoy the food. I am free to savor the food and experience the spontaneous, natural gratitude that occurs without me having to force anything. I feel grateful because life is a miracle and because food is part of that miracle.
So eat what you want instead of what you think you should eat. Relax. Enjoy it. Feel the life returning to you body. Enjoy the simple pleasures of life, including food, relationship, passion, sex, music, wind, and children. Did I mention food? Eat the bread, the pasta, the rice, the ice cream, the butter, the steak, the salt, the sugar, the fruit – all the things that were forbidden that you’ve been craving. Eat them and truly enjoy it. Life is meant to be enjoyed. Really. See if I’m not right.
What do the following all have in common? chronic Lyme disease, anorexia nervosa, multiple chemical sensitivity, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, and chronic dieting. There’s probably more than one correct answer to this question. But my answer is: stress. All of these conditions and many more that plague people for years or even for lifetimes contain stress as a common factor.
The trouble that I notice is that most people seem to make the mistake of believing that the stress is caused by the conditions and therefore can only be resolved by first resolving the conditions. I believe that sort of thinking only perpetuates the conditions. Although stress may result from the conditions, my own observation is that it is possible to resolve stress first, and by doing this it is possible to turn the tide and begin improving the conditions. Stress may not be the only thing that one needs to address, but by addressing stress it becomes much easier to address the other things that need to be addressed.
Here’s an example: years of restrictive eating as in anorexia nervosa requires re-feeding and nourishing the body. Eating a lot more food is absolutely essential for healing from anorexia. And the truth is that there is a turning point, a threshold, at which after eating enough for long enough the stress hormone production naturally decreases, which leads to a reduction in stress. And yet, to get to that point requires confronting patterns of stress that have held the eating disorder in place. So here is a the catch-22: you must heal the body to reduce the stress and you must reduce the stress to heal the body. So both are important. The truth is that without addressing the stress component early on the likelihood of successful re-feeding and nourishing the body is greatly diminished. Those of us who have lived with the stress and anxiety of an eating disorder know that when a person is stuck in the mode of restrictive eating the very thought of eating enough and eating foods that have previously been “forbidden” is stressful. Weight gain is often an essential part of healing from anorexia, and this too can be stressful for someone who has a distorted view of what a “healthy” weight is. So in healing eating disorders we absolutely must address stress concurrent with re-feeding.
The truth is that no matter what the condition, stress only serves to make things worse. Stress is an integral part of many unpleasant conditions, and the delusion that it creates is the belief that the stress is somehow part of a successful strategy to cope or heal from the condition. The beginning of healing is the recognition that this belief is false. Stress cannot and never will improve things. Stress is a major part of the problem, particularly when we hold it as a strategy that we believe can be successful in making positive changes. For me there is a very simple way to analyze such a belief. All that is necessary is to ask the question: “Am I feeling stressed?” If the answer is yes then I can be assured that my current strategy is not one that will work to my advantage.
Stress changes the entire metabolism. The way in which the body functions under stress is completely different from how it functions when relaxed. The autonomic nervous system is conceptually divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Only one of those two systems can be dominant at a time. Under stress the sympathetic system is dominant. The result is that the body becomes poised for “fight or flight.” Digestion slows, immunity is reduced, blood flow to the brain is reduced, and all sorts of stress hormones are produced and flood the body in preparation for survival. We are meant to enter sympathetic dominance only under extreme and relatively rare circumstances. Otherwise, we are designed to primarily exist in parasympathetic dominance. In this mode we are relaxed, blood flow goes to the extremities and to the brain, digestion is optimal,etc.
One key thing to note about sympathetic dominance is that blood flow to the brain is reduced. In particuar, blood flow to the frontal lobes is vastly reduced. In such a state the parts of the brain associated with the stress response such as the amygdala are the only parts that continue to get proper nourishment. So it is important to understand that during states of stress cognitive functions can be impaired. In fact, it can seem as though you are making good decisions in such a state, but later on, from a more rational perspective it can be obvious how completely distorted the thinking was. Anorexia nervosa is, again, a perfect example of this. Anorexia is characterized by chronic stress, and people with this condition notoriously have very distorted perspectives – making decisions to restrict eating when already in a starving state, for example. While the addictive qualities of some of the stress hormones may play a strong role in this sort of behavior, what is also true is that stress itself produces distorted thinking because the rational thinking parts of the brain are essentially “off line.”
So once again it should start to become obvious that addressing stress is an important part of the healing process. Stress should be addressed directly along with other important factors.
So then the question is: how to address stress? My answer is this: first and foremost, understand that stress is a physiological response, and therefore you can only successfully address it by addressing it physiologically. This is significant because many people make the mistake of trying to address stress mentally, and I believe this is a mistake. Although we may experience some of the effects of stress mentally or emotionally, the truth is that these are secondary effects, not primary. Stress occurs at a purely physiological level well before it is possible to have any awareness of the mental or emotional effects.
Once you understand that stress is a physiological issue then it makes sense that the only effective way to deal with stress is to physically relax. There are plenty of techniques that use psychological devices to effectively reduce stress, but I believe that the primary way in which any of these techniques achieve success is through indirectly producing a different (non-stressed) physical response in the face of a stressful trigger. The effect is to reprogram the body so that it learns to respond to the same trigger with a relaxed (non-stress) response.
Therefore, I believe that the most effective way to address stress is to use a direct approach. Rather than indirectly provoking a relaxed response, I suggest that it is more effective to directly relax. I have written about some of the mechanisms by which I believe that stress gets programmed into the body in How Memory Affects Your Health. In that post I made some suggestions for how to reprogram memory to reduce stress and improve health. My views since then have evolved slightly, and I now believe that it is possible to reprogram to reduce stress more directly by the following process:
Doing this process you will begin to reprogram your body. You are telling your body that your thoughts and your experiences are safe – that you can meet them with calm and with a relaxed and healthy body. This process may work very quickly or it may take some time. Everyone is different. But if you commit to this, I truly believe that you will notice improvements in your life. By doing this you will begin to feel better. And you will begin to be more able to think clearly and make better decisions that are in alignment with your values and goals such as health and happiness.
I welcome your comments and questions.
When I was in high school I slept wonderfully. I slept so soundly that my roommates reportedly brought other people into our room to watch me for entertainment (apparently I would speak in my sleep) and with lights on and laughing at my bedside I never once woke up that I can remember. On school days I usually slept about 8 hours and only woke up because the alarm was blaring. On other days I easily slept for 10 or more hours straight without waking.
I don’t know exactly when things began to shift, but by the time I was in my mid 20s I started having more trouble going to sleep and I started waking more in the night. Night-time urination frequency went from zero to an average of four times in the night over the course of several years. And then I got Lyme disease, after which my night time urination frequency skyrocketed to an average of eight times per night! When I wasn’t getting up to pee I was often laying awake with adrenalin pumping through my system at 3 or 4 in the morning. So to say that my sleep went to hell would be somewhat of an understatement.
My sleep now is vastly improved over what it was for so many years. I won’t claim that my sleep quality is quite what it was in high school, but it ain’t so far off and it’s improving every night little by little. I’m absolutely delighted at how much my sleep has improved, and I know that many people are struggling with this issue. So I want to share in this post some of the insights I have gained in terms of how to improve sleep. Not only is is really unpleasant to have sleep problems, but it is severely detrimental to one’s health. No matter what else you do, if you don’t improve your sleep you’re going to have a really hard time getting well. At least that’s my opinion. At the very least, you set yourself up for greater success if you improve your sleep. So here are my suggestions for how to improve sleep.
These are the things that have worked for me. My sleep has improved tremendously since doing these things. I am not rigid about it. I don’t always do all these things. I play it by ear, so to speak. I find no benefit in making any of these things compulsive. But these things are so helpful for me that I quite enjoy doing them much of the time. I often skip the foot soak just because it isn’t always feasible with two kids and a one-room home like I live in. And I rarely make time for stretches. But these things are beautiful luxuries when I do make time for them, and I can highly recommend them based on my own experiences.
Please post below if you have any comments. I would enjoy hearing if any of these suggestions are helpful for others.
I’m a fan of Buteyko Breathing. It’s a bit strange, to be sure. But then, most things are strange…especially professional sports. And personally, I enjoy Buteyko breathing much more than, say, American football.
If you’ve never heard of Buteyko breathing, then here’s a brief bit of background on the subject. In the second half of the 20th Century a Ukranian doctor named Konstantin Buteyko (pictured left) developed a system of breath retraining that he believed was nothing short of a panacea for all sorts of health problems, including asthma, heart disease, anxiety conditions, and probably even cancer. The breathing exercises and lifestyle recommendations that he developed now have somewhat of a cult following across the globe. There are Buteyko professionals all across the U.S. who will teach you, for a fee, to do Buteyko reduced breathing exercises. Personally, I learned from a book. I learned from Patrick McKeown’s Close Your Mouth book. And on this page I’ll give you a brief introduction.
The basic idea underlying the Buteyko breathing method is that many (or perhaps all) sick people hyperventilate. I cannot personally verify that this is true, and so I will not make any such claims myself. But this is what Buteyko breathing aims to correct in theory. Whether or not this is the mechanism by which Buteyko breathing is effective in helping people heal I do not know, but however it does work, it has helped me tremendously. The theory is that sick people hyperventilate, thus exhaling too much carbon dioxide, which then reduces body’s ability to utilize oxygen. Therefore, the theory states that by reducing breathing volume it is possible to retain greater amounts of carbon dioxide and improve oxygen utilization. Again, I don’t know if this is exactly what happens. But I do know that modifying my habitual breathing has been very helpful for me.
The first thing to note about the Buteyko method is that all breathing is done through the nose. The reasoning for this is that the nose provides important filtering functions and it naturally limits the volume of air exchange with every breath. So anyone beginning the Buteyko breathing method who is in the habit of breathing through the mouth is first encouraged to breathe only through the nose. This extends to night-time breathing as well, and so those who breathe through the mouth at night are encouraged to find ways to breathe only through the nose while sleeping. One way to achieve this is to tape the mouth shut at night. There are also chin straps that could serve this purpose.
The foundation of the Buteyko method is a diagnostic exercise called the Control Pause, or CP. This is meant to be the measurement, in seconds, of oxygen reserves in the body. (If you happen to have extreme anxiety or other severe condition then Buteyko tradition cautions against any breath holding such as with the CP test. Therefore, use your own judgment as to whether or not it is appropriate for you to do this test. If not, you can still do the reduced breathing exercise without measuring your CP until your symptoms reduce.) The way to measure the CP is to do the following:
The number of seconds that you can hold your breath at the bottom of an exhalation until the first signs of air hunger is your CP.
Buteyko found that CP correlates with state of health. <20 CP indicates poor health (<10 is often very severe.) 20-30 CP usually indicates some minor health problems. 30-40 CP usually indicates good health with some health problems brought on by certain stimuli such as specific allergens. And 40+ CP is meant to correlate to good health without qualifications. Again, I cannot confirm that this is true for everyone. I can say that as my own CP has increased I have noticed improvements in my health.
For all the breathing exercises in the Buteyko method the inhalations are active and the exhalations are passive. Furthermore, all inhalations are done using the thoracic diaphragm as the primary inspiration muscle. This is all in line with the basic anatomy of breathing in the human body, and so it makes a lot of sense. The way to measure progress in this is to place one hand on the belly and one hand on the chest. The belly should move outward on inhalation and should relax and move slightly back inward on a passive exhalation. Meanwhile, the chest should not move. If you notice that your chest moves during breathing then stay with this as an exercise until the only movement is in your abdomen and not in your chest.
The fundamental breathing exercise in the Buteyko breathing method is basic reduced breathing whereby you strive to reduce the inhalation volume. The way to do this is to start out breathing as usual for several rounds, and then on the next inhalation only inhale about 3/4 of the usual volume. Continue breathing in this fashion, inhaling only 3/4 of the usual volume. The idea is to reduce the volume enough that you feel a very mild air hunger, but not so much that it is stressful. It is important that you maintain a mild sense of air hunger by keeping the inhalation volume below what is usual for you. The key is to make it sustainable for about 20 minutes. If you reduce the volume too much then you will feel air hunger that is too strong and you will not be able to maintain it for long enough. Patrick McKeown suggests that the air hunger should be similar to what you might feel if going for a walk. Over the course of a 20 minute session you may find that the 3/4 volume becomes easier and the air hunger reduces. If so, then reduce the volume a bit more in order to maintain the same level of air hunger.
That is the basic exercise of Buteyko breathing. There are other exercises that one can do after becoming proficient at the basic exercise. The intermediate and advanced exercises involve breath holds at the bottom of exhalation and physical exercise such as walking combined with reduced breathing. I may write about these at another time.
I want to add another note here to state that I don’t necessarily believe that Buteyko breathing is the be-all-end-all of health and wellness. I believe that it can be a great adjunct to other practices and lifestyle modifications. I believe that it has helped me tremendously, but it isn’t the sole thing that turned my health around in a positive direction. For me I have found Buteyko breathing to be very complementary for reducing anxiety and improving metabolism. However, I attribute the positive changes in anxiety primarily to other practices and exercises that I have practiced and developed, and I attribute metabolic improvements mostly to eating and resting. There is a big overlapping effect between all of these things in my own experience: by reducing anxiety I was able to eat more and by eating more I was able to reduce my anxiety. So all of these practices and changes in my lifestyle worked together in a positive feedback loop to build health and reveal happiness and peace in my life.
UPDATE: I received an email asking about how I reconcile the traditional Buteyko dietary teachings with my own views regarding the importance of eating more to improve metabolic health. Here is the reply I sent in email:
I am an advocate for doing what works and being honest about your own needs versus following the dictates of some system. I personally have found tremendous benefit from Buteyko breathing as a guideline but not as a rule. Frankly, I find a good deal of Buteyko breathing teachings to be a bit obsessive and even borderline cultish. I should probably add a note about this in the blog post to make this clear. In the Buteyko obsessive community upping the CP is the most important thing above all else. Some recommend no talking no laughing no coughing no sneezing and sleeping only on the left side in addition to dietary recommendations. I just don’t agree. I think the breathing exercises, done with a light attitude and a smile can be tremendously helpful. I completely understand the deep desire to regain health, and so I understand how a practice that can be helpful can be turned into an obsession, but I don’t think it is healthy to do so. I think it is best to do it with an inquisitive and curious attitude, but don’t take it too seriously. Above all, relax, smile, and enjoy life. That is my view of it. You have to understand that I am, perhaps ironically, a bit obsessive about NOT being obsessive simply because of my history of being so obsessive with negative consequences. So I try not to take any practices too seriously.
If a person needs to eat more (i.e. low metabolism or history of starvation) then this person should eat more. Breathing exercises don’t change that or make an excuse for not eating more when it is appropriate and necessary to do so. I don’t know what your story is, and so I don’t know if you need to eat more or not. But if you do then my advice would be to try the reduced breathing exercise if you are inspired to do so AND eat more. Also, I don’t personally find that eating more or less makes such a difference in breathing exercises as the obsessives would have us believe. Same as I don’t find that sleeping on my back is a problem. Same as I don’t find that laughing is a problem. In fact, I enjoy sleeping on my back and I enjoy laughing. I also enjoy eating because I feel better. So my advise is to do what you know to be right for you. You probably know, at heart, what is best for your own health and happiness. Since you’ve asked this question, I’m guessing that you know that eating enough is important for you. So if I’m right about that, then I’d advise eating enough.
What does it mean to be truly happy? In my opinion true happiness is unconditional happiness. True happiness doesn’t depend on what I see in the mirror or how my clothes fit me. True happiness doesn’t depend on what I’ve eaten or how pure and perfect that food is. True happiness doesn’t depend on how morally and spiritually perfect I am (according to my own ideas of what that even means.) I’m not suggesting that this (true happiness) is the easiest thing to achieve, but I am suggesting that it is a worthy thing…much more so than happiness that depends on what the scale says or how my body matches some ideal that I’ve formulated in my mind based on media images and what I’ve read in books and my idea that people would like me more if I was more [insert your own idea of a desirable physical attribute] Much more than happiness that depends on being perfect and worthy.
I spent 20 years hating my body, being at war with my body, and determined to make my body fit my ideal image. Incidentally, those were 20 years of anxiety, obsession, and compulsion that eventually led to extreme sickness. If only my body would just admit defeat and finally shape itself according to my will I knew that all would be well. Except that it just doesn’t work that way. Hate doesn’t seem to yield happiness. It breeds misery and suffering. It took a long time, but eventually I realized that I am not separate from my body. This is the elusively obvious truth that was staring me in the face all the while. And so as I warred with my body I was really warring with myself. I was hurting myself. All the anxiety and sickness was the result of my war.
The crazy thing about this type of obsessive way of being that I lived is that it became a self-reinforcing loop. It started out as an obsession over my body, which led to an obsession over food and exercise. But the consequences of starvation and over-exercise and chronic stress are things like more stress, anxiety, fear, paranoia, and generalized obsessions with compulsions to boot. And for me all of that started to take on moral and spiritual overtones. I started to seek answers in philosophy and spirituality – things which I would then distort to serve my sick perceptions. I would meditate for hours followed by chanting and prayer. I would view insomnia and digestive problems as spiritual problems to be solved by greater purity and moral uprightness.
But for 20 years I was starving myself. I was denying myself basic necessities – nutrients and energy. My problems weren’t spiritual. My problems were dietary. I just needed to eat. Well, to be fair, I needed to eat and I also needed to relax. Mostly I needed to do both at the same time.
I feared so many foods at different times over the years. I feared sugar, refined grain, grain in general, meat, dairy, starches, vegetables, beans, fat, polyunsaturated fat, and probably even more if I cared to think about it any longer. I would obsess for hours and days over things that I had eaten or even things I hadn’t eaten. But what is amazing to me is that when my rules would change then I could eat something without any worry even though it had previously been a cause for stress. For example, I was fearful of meat for well over a decade, during which time I couldn’t even think about touching meat without being stressed. But once I gave myself permission it was no problem. I swore off all forms of concentrated sugar for many, many years, but then once I gave myself permission to eat it again it wasn’t a problem at all. So my realization with regard to all this was that the foods themselves were not a problem. It was only my attitude that was the problem. I was making myself miserable with my attitude.
So I started eating. I made a choice to acknowledge that my strategies had not only failed, but they were the very problem itself. So I decided to stop using the same old strategies or variations on them. Instead, I decided to listen to my body and my real needs. I ate what I wanted, and I ate often and a lot. I threw out the rules. My only guideline was to eat as much as I could using my desires as a way to determine what to eat. I did have goals to keep me honest – aiming to eat 3500 calories a day at least. But I didn’t stress about it. I didn’t look at the situation as one to win or lose. Rather, I chose to see it as life, a process, an adventure. And I started to feel better.
Therefore, in any restrictive eating situation I believe that one of the most important things a person can do is to eat. Eating enough (which is WAY more than you think) helps with so much – energy, mood, sleep, and more. But just eating is a difficult thing to do without also addressing the coincident obsessive tendencies that have gotten hardwired after living with an eating disorder.
So what I have come to believe is that true happiness is the natural result of a conscious choice to disregard obsession. True happiness is not something to attain as much as it is what is already present – what becomes clearer the more one chooses to ignore obsession. By following this advice – to turn away from obsession and instead discover true happiness – I found that I was able to eat more, experience faster recovery, and enjoy life for the first time in years. I stopped worrying about perfection, purity, and spiritual enlightenment because I was actually nourished and naturally felt good!
I have written about this elsewhere on this site, but it is worth mentioning again because I find it to be so powerful: I have found (and others have reported to me that they also find this to be true) that mental tension and anxiety are secondary to physical tension, and it is impossible to be anxious or obsessive when physically relaxed. My own experience of all those years of obsessiveness and anxiety is that I was usually struggling with my thoughts and obsessions…unsuccessfully. What I finally realized was that no amount of struggling with obsession will lead to a way out of the obsession. It is like a Gordian knot – the more you struggle with it the worse it becomes. So I started looking for a different approach.
What I asked myself was this: how did I know I was anxious? How did I know I had a problem? The answer? I knew it because I felt it. I felt it physically. I felt tense. So instead of obsessing and getting tangled up in thought and worry, I decided to ignore that and focus instead on the physical sensation. I noticed that I could find all the places in my body where I was tense and I could physically relax those areas, one at a time. At first, because I was in the habit of being tense, I could only relax a muscle for a split-second. So I’d have to consciously relax it again. But eventually I started to notice that I just started to be more relaxed. This practice, simple as it is, has been the most powerful force for healing in my life. It has helped me to effortlessly integrate all the wisdom I have learned throughout my life. This simple practice has helped me to rediscover happiness, peace, and laughter! I am so much more easy going now than when I was super uptight and focused on obsessions. Eating is easy and pleasurable. And things just keep getting better. Sure, I still get upset. Sure, I have my problems. But this simple practice has dramatically improved my life like nothing else.
I’ve just published an interview with Matt Stone in the Interviews section. Check it out! I am very pleased with how the interview turned out. Matt was very gracious to agree to the interview, and his responses really far exceeded my expectations. I have a great deal of respect for Matt’s transparency, honesty, and humility…not to mention the wisdom he has gained with regard to metabolism and health.
Listen, if you’re obsessed with eating healthfully, then I’m going to guess that you’ve got some mistaken ideas about what health food is. I know I did…for a very long time. Here’s a brief history of some of my ideas about health food:
The truth is that there is no such thing as health food in the universal sense because what is healthful for one person at one point may not be healthful for another person or even for that same person at another time.
I contend that what makes food health food is the following:
We all have our reasons to seeking out “health food”, and I would suggest that a good many of those reasons are dysfunctional and really don’t serve our health. For me the search for health food started as a way in which to rid myself of breasts. After years and years the habit of seeking health food was so ingrained that I lost sight of the underlying reason that started it all, but I kept going with the obsessive search for perfection. I wanted to be superhuman, pure, and achieve what amounted to god-like status through diet. But as my health food continued to lead me further and further into a downward spiral of worsening health, eventually weakening my digestion, my metabolism, and my immunity to the point where I could barely eat 1500 calories even on a good day, I was irritable, I was fatigued, and I was caught up in a full-blown nightmare of obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior. I know I’m not the only one either. I have heard from others. I have read others’ stories. I know that this is a well-kept secret epidemic that affects millions of people. Millions of people who are bloated, insomniac, cold-intolerant, depressed, constipated, dehydrated, and/or suffering from all sorts of other mysterious ailments. And the search for health food is a big part of the problem, not the solution.
If someone has to tell you that some food is health food, then it probably isn’t. Most of what passes for health food isn’t. That isn’t to say that for some people on occasion a raw vegetable salad or wheatgrass juice or a zero-carbohydrate day or a grass-fed beef liver only day might not be healthy. But the key to knowing what is health food is listening to your body and your desires. What truly feels as though it would be the most delicious and satisfying food or meal for you right now? Chocolate cake? Lifesavers candy? Peanut butter? Jello? Sourdough bread and cheese? Ice cream? Or maybe a baked potato with butter and lots of salt? Pretzels? Yum!
Tell me if when I listed off those things you didn’t have objections. Maybe you’re on a gluten-free diet or a low carbohydrate diet. Maybe you don’t eat refined foods. Maybe you don’t eat dairy because of lactose or casein intolerance. Maybe you’re on a low salt diet. Peanuts have toxins, you say. Ice cream will make you fat. You don’t eat sugar. But forget about all that for a moment. Granted, there are some rare cases in which a person knows they have a genuine, intense, negative reaction to a food. In such a case it is prudent not to eat that food (for now.) But tell the truth: most of us don’t have Celiac disease. Most of us just have an idea that gluten is bad. Or maybe we have a mild discomfort from lots of gluten. But that’s different from full-blown Celiac. So this requires real honesty. And if you find yourself craving bread and pretzels and cheese and ice cream…maybe that’s your body telling you what you need.
See, I subscribed to this whole notion that the body cannot be trusted for a long time. I believed that I needed to look to external authorities for help in discovering what to eat. I thought someone else could tell me what is health food. But sometimes health food is raw vegetables and sometimes health food is gluten-rich, chocolate cake with ice cream and goitrogen-containing strawberries and salicylate-containing peppermint and caramel all made with refined white sugar and refined white wheat flour and lots of refined table salt. You can know which is which with a really simple test: what do you want to eat? What does your body want? I’m not advocating for extreme diets. I’m not advocating for eating lots of white sugar…unless that’s what your body wants.
Listen to your body. Trust your body. Stop stressing about the food. Stop stressing altogether. I know it sounds as though it’s easier said than done. But I’m writing this as someone who obsessed for 20+ years. I was so obsessive that I spent years washing my hands and turning in circles every time I even thought the word “sugar” or “McDonalds”. I believe that I know about stress and obsession and anxiety more than most. If I can do it, you can do it. And I’d be glad to help you if you want to reach out and ask. The key, in my experience, really and truly, as simple as it sounds, is to physically relax. Let the thoughts happen and just relax your body. Relax your jaw. Relax your belly. Relax your forehead. Relax your shoulders. And just keep relaxing. And eat what you desire, as much as you desire whenever you desire. Don’t worry about it. Things have a way of working out. Your body will tell you what you need, and it will change over time. So don’t worry about it.