Sunday, March 6, 2011

What to Eat

Girls, they never befriend me
‘Cause I fall asleep when they speak
Of all the calories they eat.
Marina and the Diamonds

“Did you know that most people have four to seven impulse moments a day, lasting 2 to 3 minutes, in which they are tempted to indulge in unhealthy foods?”

“Changing your eating habits will be easier if you have a plan. Putting together a plan means setting goals, tracking your progress, finding support, and rewarding yourself.”

“Anorexia affects both the body and the mind…You think about food, dieting, and weight all the time.”

The passages above are from the Kaiser Permanente website. This is what my heath care provider tells me about eating. Everyone is obsessed with unhealthy food. You need to carefully plan and regulate what you eat. But don’t think too much about it; that’s an eating disorder.

After Sunday sparring class, my male training partners stand around and eat tangerines and compare their diets. Somebody has cut out all grains and dairy. Somebody else has been eating as much animal fats as he wants, but no refined sugar. Another person only eats raw vegetable matter. Our teacher has just finished a cleansing fast. Two people admit to drinking their own urine for medicinal purposes. This topic can last for hours; there’s just so much to say.

One of my favorite videos from my kung fu school shows myself and another woman sparring. The reason I like it because of the off-screen conversation that narrates our fight. Just behind the camera, my teacher is talking to the raw vegan student.

“What have you been eating lately?” my teacher’s voice asks.

“High protein diet,” says the vegan.

“Really?” asks my teacher. “Where are you getting your protein?”

“Broccoli,” says the vegan.

“Broccoli has protein?” my teacher asks.

“Sure, lots,” says the vegan. “I’ve been eating mostly broccoli, greens, bananas, sprouts…”

You can just imagine how hard it is to wrap up conversation on such a fascinating topic. It lasts longer than the two-minute sparring round, so I never get to hear the end of it, which always disappoints me.

The health teacher at the college where I work tells me that it’s typical of athletes to be obsessed with food. Martial artists might be worse than most, because they often need to drop below their optimal body weight to compete. That, and martial arts are a cross between a sport and a religion, so people tend to understand their physical demands as ethical imperatives. Maintaining a minimal body weight isn’t just a strategy for competition: it’s what the Shaolin monks would want you to do, if you were training with them on a mountaintop in China instead of here, in Oakland, across from a Pizza Hut.

I think about food a lot. I’m pretty sure everybody does. If it’s true, as they say, that women think about sex every three minutes, and men about twelve times more frequently than that, and if we need food more urgently than we need sex to ensure the survival of our species, then it stands to reason that food might cross our minds during those brief respites between sex thoughts.

When I am being polite, I try not to reveal my thoughts about food. It feels uncouth to reveal such an obsessive inner narrative, like exposing your sexual fantasies to a casual acquaintance.

And like revelations of sexual fantasies, not everyone reacts favorably to discussions about food. When I haven’t been careful enough, I’ve elicited negative responses ranging from That’s kind of neurotic to Being so obsessed with food is totally unfeminist to You are giving me an anxiety attack.

“I always wonder if eating too much fruit is bad for me,” I said to the health teacher one day.

We were having a conversation about nutritional science, a subject taught in her department. My question about fruit was meant as an example of why I thought nutrition was such an interesting field of study.

“Well, how much fruit do you eat?” she asked.

“In the summer, I let myself eat as much fruit as I want. Sometimes I eat a regular dinner and then a second dinner composed entirely of fruit.”

I saw her face stretching into an expression that communicated, Oh, you poor person, you have some kind of mental disorder.

“Did that sound crazy?” I asked.

“Listen to your wording,” she said. “You ‘let yourself.’”

Okay, it sounds a little neurotic, I’ll admit, the idea of giving oneself permission to eat some things and not others. But even Kaiser Permanente told me to have a plan. How else can someone maintain a healthy diet? Eat whatever they want, and hope it turns out to be healthy? If I didn’t give myself permission to eat some things and not others, I would eat cookies all day long.

It’s doublethink—“the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” Make healthy choices about food…but don’t think about them! Just do it, do it unconsciously, do it right, and for god’s sake don’t talk about it!