- by joeylott
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:
- Thinner is better
- Carrying fat on your body is unhealthy
- Ice cream is unhealthy
- Gluten is bad for you
- Veganism will save the world
- You must eat a high-fiber diet for health
- Your body must look like the body of some air-brushed, photoshopped person to be attractive
- Green vegetables are health food
- Our paleolithic ancestors enjoyed perfect health and ate only animal foods and small amounts of wild vegetables
- Salt will kill you
- Ketosis is the perfect state
- You’re overweight
- You need to fit into smaller clothes
- Your happiness depends on how you look
- Eat less to lose weight
- Saturated fat will give you a heart attack
- Carbohydrates will make you fat
- Sugar is the work of the devil
- Humans are biologically designed to be herbivores (or, alternatively, carnivores)
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.