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!


Jessica said...

Au contraire-- I don't think about food "a lot." I think about it under very specific circumstances, mostly when I'm hungry, or when it comes up in conversation (either virtual or when I am reading blog posts by certain diet-obsessed friends of mine.) But I am not sure that "thinking about food a lot" is an example of a problem-- I am sure professional chefs, for example, think about food a lot in non-problematic ways. If I could suggest a better definition for problematic eating, it might be: An eating style or mode of thought that interferes with the mental or physical health of the eater. Is thinking about food stressful? Do you feel bad about your eating? Have you ever said no to a social event because you worried about being exposed to food you did not want to eat? Do you get emotional pleasure from denying yourself food? If so, then maybe you've got a problem.

Jessica said...

Argh-- that was supposed to be "non-virtual."

Karin Spirn said...

You do think about food a lot! You plan your whole weeks' menu ahead of time (which I greatly admire)--that involves a lot of thinking!

You're right that this list (oddly reminiscent of things that you have specifically observed me doing) seems like a problematic set of behaviors, and the point is taken.

But here's where I see the conundrum: Within your definition of "an eating style or mode of thought that interferes with the mental or physical health of the eater" would also fall eating desserts every day as a way of getting extra energy at work. For me, it is stressful to cut back on eating sugar when I've been eating too much of it; yet the eating too much of it is also unhealthy, both physically and mentally. So either way, eating disorder. What to do?

Either way, obviously, the underlying problem is the stress, not the eating. But the stress is what makes me have the fabulous, prosperous, challenging and fulfilling life that I have.

Jessica said...

Does anyone really eat dessert regularly as a way to get energy at work? That seems like a problem of poor planning rather than disordered eating-- if you know you're going to get hungry, why not have snacks around? Or eat a more filling lunch? I mean, not like I don't mow down a cookie at 3:30 occasionally...

In response to your other comment: Planning my whole week's menu-- including shopping-- takes about 90 minutes. I also think about food when I'm eating it, and in the 30 minutes before I eat it (11:30-12 particularly-- I start wondering what kind of soup they have at the soup bar), and when I'm cooking. So I probably think about food for 90-120 minutes per day, on average, which is, to your point, significant.

Jessica said...

Oh, also: That list was not meant to be specifically about *you* :-). I know multiple people who could be described by three of the four items on my list. I used to be one of those people-- I WAS a teenage girl in America after all-- but I have left my food issues behind with adulthood and I am SO. GLAD. Part of the reason I don't like to hear you go on about your food feelings is because it re-awakens the sleeping eating disorder within. To make an analogy that some people may find offensive: It's like you're my fundamentalist christian childhood friend, and I am an ex-fundamentalist happy out gay person, and you start talking about Jesus and sin and the path of righteousness and I just want to stick my fingers in my ears and yell LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU! because a tiny secret part of me worries that you're right, that I *should* feel guilty and weird about food just like every other person in the universe.

Karin Spirn said...

The very fact that you can make this statement--
"Does anyone really eat dessert regularly as a way to get energy at work?"
--is a testament to your healthy attitude, and I think it is awesome.

But to answer you:

Yes! I do!

Sometimes when I have to grade our basic skills final exams in our English lab, someone puts out a container of candy, and if I don't make a rule that I can't eat any I will eat it ALL, despite all the nutritious lunch I've just eaten. I work at a place with candy and sweets everywhere, and when you combine that with tedious grading, high-adrenaline teaching, and general lack of sleep, it's a big issue, not just for me, but for many of the people I work with.

I think we just need to stop letting everyone bring so much candy to work.

(I just gave a presentation by the way and ate about seven cookies as it proceeded). No shame about it, but it gives me a stomach ache.

Jessica said...

Wow. No wonder you talk so much about trying to avoid sugar-- clearly it appeals to you. I guess I am glad I was born with a starch tooth rather than a sweet tooth. No one ever leaves big jars of fluffy steamed white rice lying around.

Karin Spirn said...

But I wish they would!

Melinda said...

I don't really think about food in the same way that you ladies do, but it can be stressful for me, too. Like when I'm writing something and trying to think of a different way to say things like, "the drink list features," "substantial portions of American-inflected bistro fare," or "creatively conceived, well-executed meat dishes." I hate it when I get into that rhythm of describing food using a bunch of repetitive phrases. This is what makes writing about food so challenging.

Even when I'm not thinking about food for work, I tend to make it more stressful than it needs to be. Often, I focus intensely on how to satisfy a particular craving while simultaneously using as many of the foods that are already in my fridge. Or worry that I've been eating too much of something all week. But the most difficult thing for me when it comes to planning dinner is probably the wine/sake pairing. I know it sounds silly, but I do spend an inordinate amount of time on it...

Although I probably should think more about my food choices from a health perspective, I have to say that I rarely do. But then I would have to feel bad about eating and drinking so much.

Karin Spirn said...

You might think you don't consider food from a health perspective, Melinda, but I'd beg to differ.

In college, my idea of healthy eating was all vegetables and/or carbs. Head of bok-choy, stir-fried=excellent meal!

I was always confused when you'd say that your late-night snack of noodles in oyster sauce (YUM) wasn't healthy. "But it hardly has any fat," I'd say.

You taught me the obvious but somehow missed by me concept that a meal needs to have a balance of protein, vegetables, and carbs. Thank god somebody told me!