Why I stopped counting calories: part 2
One of my more *extreme* attempts to manipulate my physiology was when I started a ketogenic diet. (This is when your body runs on fat as fuel, rather than sugar; to get there your diet usually has to be at least 80% fat, and under 5% carbohydrates.) I wanted to catalyze my ketosis experience so I could burn away ALL MY FAT and be super fit and thin, so in order to do that, I committed myself to eat only fat for 5 days.
Gross, unrealistic, and probably just a terrible idea. But that was my plan.
On the first day of my “NOT crash diet,” I had bulletproof coffee, coconut oil, herbal tea, and straight butter. Physically I was nauseated, and mentally I felt a little floaty, so I tried to turn in early that night.
I woke up in the middle of the night very certain my nausea had gotten the best of me, and as I headed to the bathroom, I grabbed my peppermint oil to take a sniff as a last ploy in what I was sure was a losing battle against these severe “keto-flu” symptoms.
You may recall my mentioning in part one that I have a ridiculous, irrational fear of vomiting. An important footnote is that when I say “irrational fear” I mean I black out when I get anywhere close to throwing up. Mhmm yeah, so you can see where this story is going.
I was almost to the bathroom when I completely blacked out, and I came to with no recollection of where I was—only a throbbing pain on the right side of my face, and pitch-black surroundings that offered zero help as I attempted to gain recollection of what happened and start recovery somehow.
Pieces started to come together, and I realized that I’d made it halfway to the bathroom, but had passed out into the doorframe of the kitchen along the way. I started to push myself up and I looked down the hall to see that the peppermint oil had rolled out of my hand, Snow White style, as I fell dramatically to the ground—a victim to my latest trendy weight-loss cheat.
All this to say:
Surely this is not what food is about.
But if dieting and control and coming out on top isn’t what it’s about, what is?
One of my favorite health trends is Whole 30. I love seeing people take a break from their Standard American Diet to return to whole, natural foods.
And if you're one of what-feels-like-millions trying it out this January, taking on this kind of change for 30 days is a commitment, because it’s going to be almost impossible to maintain the (reasonable) restrictions of a whole foods diet at a restaurant.
The result? People are cooking a lot more.
And this is what I think is so healing about Whole 30: being connected to your food again. To be sure, dropping refined sugars, grains and other inflammatory foods will absolutely bring a host of physical benefits and healing to your body. But when people are handling and slicing and roasting plants—REAL plants! from the ground!—there’s more healing going on than just in their bodies.
They’re healing their relationship with food.
This is important, because lasting change calls for more than a behavioral shift.
The problem is deeper than a simple shift in actions. If to you, food is just a tool to manipulate your body, your healthy results stop when your calculations do.
Again, I want to be clear that you can absolutely lose weight/gain muscle/increase athletic performance/reach whatever your goals are by using some pretty intense formulas. I’m not saying they don’t work—they do. “Calories in, calories out,” is not a myth. You can get the change you want with some committed math and measurements.
But if the math and measurements are what sustain your change, you’ll likely have one of two outcomes:
you’ll eventually stop living by the formulas,
or the numbers will rule you.
In either case, you become so mentally (and spiritually) focused on what you’re eating, that food rules you.
You’re no longer consuming food—it’s consuming you.
Think about any weight-loss competition show for a second. People who have been at war with their bodies for years are brought into an environment where they’re taught how to use food and exercise and formulas against themselves; and then they’re literally rewarded for how much tangible success they get. Not only that, but they get pitted against one another in a deeply personal, vulnerable journey. (And don’t be fooled: this is primarily for the sake of good television and your entertainment.)
It’s no wonder an over-dieted, deprived group of people leave that program and they find themselves starving.
Starving for indulgence, yes,
and starving for food, for satisfaction,
But also starving for affirmation,
starving for the rewards,
starving to hear that they did a good job.
In our culture as a whole, our relationship with food is sideways. Food becomes our enemy—taunting us with forbidden treats when we’re trying so hard to convince ourselves we really want a salad instead. Food is a source of self-judgment and self-contempt, and we use and abuse it to our convenience. Food wasn’t meant to be either one of those, and it certainly can’t be both.
Because when you ask food to be both a tool of convenience and a moral endeavor, you end up constantly making decisions in that tension, judging yourself for it, resenting food, and still remaining enslaved to its grip on you.
When it consumes your view of yourself and your life, food still has control over you—you are in its power.
Here’s how it happens: we tell ourselves we’re good or bad based on how we ate. You’ve been there, right? Someone offers you some tantalizing chocolate treat after a dinner party, and as you reach out for your helping, you offer some sort of penitence, saying, “I’ve been so bad lately,” speaking only of your recent eating habits.
We also want what we eat to be fast, tasty, satisfying, and suited to each individual’s preferences, but also—please, God—to not make us fat.
We obsess over it until our food consumes us.
Listen, your food choices do not make you good or bad. Period.
As long as you’re looking to your eating habits for some sense of self-justification, goodness, or success, you’ll always be compensating, always reacting.
When we’re in a moral battle with ourselves, we always lose, because the only way to fight is with extremes. Right and wrong, good and bad, black and white. We swing between gluttony and restriction, from indulgence to deprivation, hopelessly riding the momentum as we drift back and forth.
In a moral battle with ourselves, we always lose.
Not only that, but it doesn’t work. When we rely on extreme reactions and judgment to get us where we’re trying to go, the opposite extreme pushback is always just around the corner. What I’m saying is this: when you’re dieting, if you feel deprived, you’ll always come out of it with a catapult straight into gluttony and overindulgence, often undoing all the “success” and change you’ve achieved.
But there is a third way.
I believe that dualism is a myth. We make believe that there are two distinct, opposite options for us. But the reality is, we are never trapped between two extremes, and we never only have two options. That myth keeps us swinging back and forth, riding momentum from one extreme to the other, just wishing we’d settle down and stagnate in the middle.
But life is not found in stagnation, and abundant life isn’t found in the extremes—abundant life is found in the balance on top. Engaging and resisting both extremes. A balanced, transcendent, spiritual way.
We’re not hopelessly enslaved to our own reactions. And we don’t have to feel deprived just to grow and change in our relationship with food.
The third way with food starts with interacting with it. Since we fear what we don’t know, it’s important to get acquainted with the sources of your food.
This means prepping, cooking, serving, or even growing your own food.
This means removing the distance from how your fuel gets to your plate and nourishes your body.
This means convenience takes a back seat, and you start to understand that maybe there is a moral component to food choices, but it has nothing to do with the amount of calories or carbs you’re consuming.
It means a renewed appreciation for what our food does for us, rather than a fear of what it might do to us.
When our food is a mysterious force that affects us in ways we don’t understand, this is when we start to fear. And out of fear, we react and try to create some way to control it. And this is also the way that food ends up controlling us.
Food is meant to be a source of life, nourishment, and even delight for us, but when we fear it, we abuse and avoid it instead.
You get to decide your stance toward what you consume. Will you appreciate it, enjoy it, and allow it to nourish you? Or will you continue to seek control and power over this beautiful life source?
As always, the choice is up to you.