How to eat

This blog on the “Eocene Diet” got me laughing on April Fool’s Day.  The buzz in fitness circles these past couple years has revolved around the Paleo diet—ie, eat like a caveman because our digestive tracks and bodies haven’t evolved much since that period—and this blog pokes a bit of fun at the logic.  “The Paleolithic era represents only 5 percent of the time that shaped our primate genome– 95 percent of primate evolutionary history occurred prior to the Paleolithic. The Neolithic period, since humans domesticated plants roughly 10,000 years ago, accounts for only 0.02 percent. Therefore, we are not well adapted to eating grains, legumes and dairy, and we aren’t well adapted to eating meat and starch either. Our true, deepest evolutionary adaptations are to the foods that sustained our primate ancestors for the tens of millions of years prior to the Paleolithic.”  In short, we should stick to eating raw fruit, raw leaves, and live insects.

Here, mind if I pick my lunch out of your hair?

The Catch-22 in training is that for any good fitness routine to be effective—particularly for those focusing on weight loss—one needs to also focus on nutrition; crappy dietary decisions can completely reverse even the most stellar workouts. Many folks who work out recognize this fact on some level, and often turn to the same professionals who design their workouts for advice on the other half of the picture.  Our gym—and I imagine more than a few others—are pretty strict, though, with regards to what trainers can and can’t say to clients in the matters of food.  Most certifications have some basic nutrition involved, but nothing to the extent of what, say, a registered dietician has.  In other words, if you’re wondering about a list of protein-packed foods to include in your diet, then we can probably give you some ideas, but we can’t diagnose your food intolerances or tell you if that supplement is going to give you as much energy as that article you read says.

When you consider all the hubbub about diets or “superfoods” or whatever exciting trick brings optimal health, and how much contradictory information exists it’s understandable why fitness professionals should tread lightly when talking about nutrition.  Low carb? High carb?  Vegetarian? Bacon-lovers anonymous? Given that the media tends to underreport what nutrition research actually says, it’s hard to tell which viewpoints are most “correct.” (Check out some interesting articles on the concept here and here.)

Growing up, I spent a lot of time reading the nutrition books my mom left lying around.  I was a book worm, and the people in the case studies were kind of like characters in short stories, so I inevitably learned a lot of information about the popular nutrition advice of the moment.  Depending on the period, you could walk into our kitchen, rifle through two or three cupboards, and probably figure out the latest word on what to eat: for a while, canola oil and fish chilled in the fridge alongside omega-3 eggs while walnuts and fish-oil pills hid in the cabinets (actually, I’m pretty sure all that’s still there), or buckwheat flour replaced regular flour when we went gluten-free (BEFORE the current gluten-free kick, I’ll have you know), or xylitol and coconut oil replaced the sugar and other cooking fats.

You know what I ended up learning?  No one food, no one school of nutrition thought, is going to fix your life or make you lose weight.  My family still struggled with the same issues they did before—borderline diabetes, depression, autism—with or without the offending foodstuffs.

When I entered the fitness industry, one of the hardest things to swallow was listening to folks talk emphatically about this or that diet or lifestyle as a cure-all.  It’s a fad! I wanted to yell at anybody who started on about gluten-free this or raw-food that.  How are you so naïve? In five years, it’ll be something different! Yet whoever touted the regimen would act like their plan of choice was entirely different from the more common fad routines—Atkins or South Beach or The Cookie Diet—simply because it’s a fad that caters to fitness elite, trainers and athletes, rather than less athletic populations.

That’s not to say that the nutrition regimens didn’t work for them.  I’ve met more than a few ladies who have some pretty intense GI issues when they ingest a few particles of regular bread or soy sauce or whatever.  For others, raw foodism makes them feel the most light and healthy and energized they ever have. They may stick to these plans for the next five or ten years, for the rest of their lives, or for only a few months.  They’re not wrong. There are a lot of good bits amidst everything: for instance, Paleo preaches eating mostly whole foods, as they’re found in nature, which, to be honest, doesn’t sound like a terribly bad idea when you’re trying to decide between a highly-processed microwaveable meal or a salad you threw together with some fresh veggies, chicken, and seeds.

Hell, futzing around with the latest food fads and super foods actually is a great way to figure out what helps your body best, if you’re willing to listen—when trying to eat a lower-carb diet, I learned, for instance, that skimp on mid-day carbohydrates, I’ll inevitably drop into an exhausted state where I feel like I’m drifting through sludge.  More than one green smoothie in less than twenty-four hours will give me so much stomach pain that I can barely move from the fetal position.  Meat makes me fuller than non-meat protein.  And so on.

Once, a year or two ago, I was talking with a coworker about a client of hers who was trying to learn how to eat healthier, and in the process of cutting out her daily cup of hot cocoa, replaced the drink with a Dunkin Donuts coffee with cream and sugar.  My coworker explained to her that the two drinks weren’t much different nutritionally, the girl changed her habit, and, in that same manner of reworking the rest of her diet, ended up losing something like 30 pounds.  Other clients of hers, though, would hear the same advice and still not change their habits markedly.  Sometimes, people do just need to know what to eat, and how to apply it to their lifestyles.

Oftentimes, though, it’s not enough.  And that’s why trainers giving nutrition advice gets so sticky, why reading about the latest super foods or nutritional powerhouse or diet breakthrough doesn’t actually change that many people’s health long-term.

You see, much of our focus has gone to what to eat, as though there’s some precise combination of foods that will solve our problems and make us healthier people.  But as much as these plans are telling us to eat this or don’t eat that or do this in this combination or at this time, when they work, they’re also showing us how we eat.  When you’re trying a new diet or lifestyle, you become hyperaware of how those foods affect your body—a level of consciousness you may not have engaged in when you were drinking a venti Frappuccino every afternoon at 3.30.

Most of us have heard the rule, “Don’t eat after 8pm” (or 7pm or 9pm).  You’ll hear different logic about what it means—some say it’s because you don’t burn the calories off when you sleep (not really true), some say because you’re just more likely to eat junk food or mindlessly munch at 9pm than at 9am.  I lean towards believing the latter because of my late night noshing tendencies (yes, I’ve gained weight from eating too much at night before, but only when I stress eat chocolate, not when I have late dinners.  In other words, when I eat above and beyond what my body needs for the day).  Because of my experience, I never gave much mind to the “rule” because I knew that it was a bit subjective.   On the rare occasion I tried to follow it, I would inevitably find myself pouring a bowl of cereal ten minutes after the cut-off point.

Then I had an a-ha moment after offering to close the gym a couple nights—When I’m up and around later, I’m just more likely to eat than when I go to bed at my usual grandmotherly time of 9.30 or 10pm.  It’s as though my body realizes I’m not in my pajamas, am instead cleaning machines or reading food blogs or whatever is keeping me up past bedtime, and wants me to fuel myself with lots of carbs since I’m not giving myself sleep.  Now, when I get munchy at night time, I don’t think, “DON’T EAT THAT CUPCAKE, SETZER!” I think, “Wait. My body’s up too late and wants more energy.  Can I get my butt to bed, or do I need to figure out a food/caffeine action plan to keep me sane until I can go to sleep?”

It’s nuances like this that get lost when we focus too much on what the latest food plan or diet says.  Getting back to my conversation with my friend, yes, sometimes people do just need to get in the habit of eating fruits and veggies at every meal or learning that half a pizza may not the most nutritionally sound lunch choice.  But often times, we hear, “Don’t eat past 8pm,” and don’t consider why we’re in a situation that we eat so poorly at night.  Sticking to rules is a lot harder when you don’t know the logic behind your body’s workings, why people suggest you have these rules in the first place.

Why the continued focus on these precise rules and plans?  Because it’s easier.  Change what you buy at the store, eat at these regimented times in these regimented meals, and presto-change-o, you’re a skinny, athletic person.  It also puts the locus of control elsewhere: it’s the food that’s the problem, not me.  It’s a lot harder to cope with and respond to, say, the fact that you binge on chocolate every night after a late shift, only to realize that whenever you consciously try to change that habit, you have a tiny little voice in your head yelling, But every other time you’ve tried to be healthier, you’ve failed!  And gotten fatter!  Take that, Fatty McFatterson!

Even the information that’s out there about discovering the nuances of how our mind and body work with food often oversimplify the problems.  Take emotional eating. Before you eat, most common advice says, figure out what you’re feeling.  Are you lonely?  Call a friend.  Are you sad?  Watch a funny movie.   Etc.  Along that logic, if I come home from work and feel stressed, I should do something to relax.  But what if I recognize that I’m stressed, yet don’t feel like I have a right to be stressed because my workload is so light compared to others’?  What if the stress I feel is not because I’m working too hard, but because I feel incompetent at what I do?  I’ll go take my relaxing bath, and then still break into the Cadbury Mini Eggs.  I may recognize the emotion, but not reflecting on the root cause of the emotion changes how I would respond to it.

Yet, of course, that’s too complicated, too personal for a nutrition doctrine meant for the masses.  And it should be.  We get back to the same point I started with, about trainers having to watch the advice they give to clients: sure, we can tell you to eat more vegetables or protein or whatever, we can even tell you to follow Paleo this or Raw Food that, but there are so many pieces involved with the individual’s relationship with food that we can’t snap our fingers and fix.  Finding the right eating plan for yourself means figuring out where your obstacles lie at the moment—are you honestly just clueless about nutrition, or are you living a lifestyle that doesn’t promote healthfulness, or do you have some underlying emotional issues that need responding to?  And so on.

The next time you hear about the latest diet idea, by all means, read about it, research it.  But rather than simply eating like a caveman or avoiding all cooked foods, consider what these plans are meant to tell you about yourself.

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One thought on “How to eat

  1. anniecardi says:

    Amen to all of the above. I tend to be very suspicious of diets that puts a whole category of foods as off limits. (Sometimes I want a cupcake and that’s okay.) Like you said, diet isn’t as simple as cutting out carbs or eating just vegetables. It’s a complicated, personal process about your own health, lifestyle, and emotions.

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