I’ve had a personal journey with food, diet, weight loss, overeating, not eating enough. Closely linked to this is my feelings about food– I shouldn’t eat so much, I should eat better, I should eat more slowly. I really deserve all of this dessert, I know I should eat veggies but I just want ice cream right now. I have to eat all of this food right now, I’m starving! If I don’t clear my plate something bad will happen. And finally, more deeply, I’ve noticed that my overall mood and well-being are strongly linked to what I eat and when. Of course in my quest for personal health I’ve sought understanding through many conversations as well as a great deal of reading. As a practiced skeptic I’ve learned that no one really has anything like a comprehensive understanding of any of this. Also, I feel that I know enough now to be able to say some useful things myself about the topic.
1) Body weight is mostly not about how much you eat. Rather it is mainly about the quality of your diet and stress on your nervous system; Anxiety vs Depression
People claim that sugary food causes diabetes and/or obesity. But people who eat junk food don’t eat good food. How do we know it’s not the lack of nutrition that’s actually causing the problem? Further, people who eat junk food tend to be poor and under a lot of emotional/psychic stress. The obesity/diabetes epidemic correlates very closely with the neoliberal assault on the working class that started in the late ’70s, early ’80s. It correlates with the atomization of society, increase in latchkey kids, fearmongering in the media, moving jobs overseas, destruction of communities and a sense of community. We have food deserts in inner cities where all you can buy is junk food, certainly the produce quality is inferior. This is even a problem to some extent where I live in a working-class neighborhood of a Seattle suburb– a lot of the grocery stores have tons of food but the fresh produce is lacking compared to richer suburbs or city neighborhoods.
My personal experience is that my weight has fluctuated rapidly even though I’ve generally tended to eat a lot, certainly almost never missing meals except during occasional periods where I’ve fasted just as a personal experiment. And while I tend to binge on junk food I’ve always made sure I get regular full meals of nutritious food. Nonetheless I went from 150 down to 135, ballooned up slowly to 215, dropped down to 140 again. The only way I can account for it is lifestyle changes, changes in attitude. Diet just can’t explain it.
2) Food is a source of comfort. This is inherent to human biology.
This is something we all know is true, deep in our guts. Yet there is so much propaganda about it, we’ve all come to have our doubts. It’s a constant drumbeat, a barrage of information telling us what to eat, when, why, the consequences of overeating, undereating, eating the wrong food, the amazing things that happen when you eat the right food. And these lies get purchase in our minds. Which isn’t because we’re stupid and gullible. Rather it is because we have all these weird sensations in our guts that are confusing and hard to interpret rationally.
I referred to it in my introduction. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night feeling ravenous, that I absolutely had to eat immediately. And I did eat a lot. Actually this happened to me for a few weeks during the time I gained a lot of weight. It also happened again recently and I have not gained any weight since. Of course I say “it happened” but indeed I made the choice to give in to those cravings. I chose to eat that food.
Yet I can’t be sure if that was a good or bad thing for me to do. On the one hand I have all these outside voices telling me I shouldn’t eat too much and I can harm myself by doing so.
On the other hand I have my experience: In one case I gained weight, in the other my weight stayed basically the same. I have lots of reasons to believe the weight gain had to do with other things. When I was gaining weight I was depressed. I had little purpose, didn’t go out much. When I tried to start a job or volunteer somewhere I would quickly find excuses to bail. I was able to continue relating to family and friends to some extent as well as form new relationships with roommates when I moved. But overall my life was very empty, I felt very stuck. Now it’s possible that lack of exercise was my problem. I had a lot of aches and pains during that time. I chose to remain mostly sedentary, moving around some but minimally. However this is in contradiction to my period of initial weight loss. During that time I wasn’t depressed but rather super anxious and stressed out. I spent many days, even months lying down. I kept eating. But I lost weight, I didn’t gain it, despite my lack of movement. My best guess is that it was the stress that caused me to lose weight and the depression that caused me to gain it. Not the food particularly.
Which brings me back to my choice to binge on food in the middle of the night. In every case I can remember, I felt better afterward and was able to return to sleep. So I just see no reason to think it was an unhealthy choice.
Generally speaking I’ve noticed that junk food tends to make the most effective comfort food. I’ve come to accept that I can recover from difficult and stressful emotions by bingeing on junk food. I’ve also come to accept that there are some hard limits on the human body to process food and emotions. So I’m more careful than I used to be about what I take on.
Nonetheless, I find it incredibly liberating to see food as a very powerful tool. That there is no sin in it. Rather it’s up to me to use it wisely and to the best of my ability.