Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Awfully Familiar

Quite some time ago, I read a book written by health guru Dr. Andrew Weil. In the beginning of the book, he talks about stomping through some jungle somewhere and stopping for the evening. He heated a pot of water, and dumped in a packet of hot chocolate mix, the sort that you can buy in markets anywhere which is made of chemicals, cocoa, and dehydrated milk. He said that there was something very comforting about the familiar experience of drinking this sort of concoction, even though he knew that it wasn't good for him.

For those who don't know, Dr. Weil has written books about integrative medicine and also talks about things like "energy medicine" and eating whole foods. He was talking about avoiding processed foods long before it became the "in" thing to do. He advocates preventative medicine and natural healing where possible, but encourages radical medical intervention and treatment where necessary. He nicely straddles the divide between science and looking to nature for cures.

As one might imagine, Dr. Weil doesn't recommend that we eat things like processed foods or chemical additives like artificial sweeteners. That being said, even he understands the emotional and cultural connections that we have to the non-nutritive or potentially damaging foods we grow up with. That's why he included the passage about drinking the powdered chocolate in the jungle.

Today, I sampled a fragment of a Ruffles potato chip that my husband had leftover from his lunch and I was reminded of Dr. Weil's experience. It thought it tasted strange and not particularly good. Frankly, it was awful to me. That being said, I did find it familiar and emotionally sustaining at the same time. There was something about the weird oily texture and the flavor which must only come from Ruffles fry vats. I could easily see eating more and deriving comfort from them, not because I was savoring every bite as I do when eating mindfully, but because I could enjoy the crunchiness and the known chemical flavors. The pleasure could not come from the tasting, but from the act of shoveling one after another into my mouth. They felt like something which is not meant to be savored, but to provide a sensory companionship of sorts. The longer the companionship, the more comfort one could have.

Part of the reason I no longer find the taste of this sort of food attractive is that I haven't eaten it for awhile. That's not to say that I don't eat any non-nutritious food, far from it. I have pretzels, chocolate, cookies, and rice crackers all of the time. They're just not made in the same way, particularly in terms of the deep fried aspects. I've never been a fan of deep-fried food, so I wouldn't turn to such things naturally anyway.

The experience of tasting that chip gave me a stronger sense of the difference between compulsive eating (which is done for psychological comfort) and eating for pleasure. I could definitely see why people eat certain foods by the handful without even spending long tasting them. Though I had no desire to eat them compulsively (one fragment was enough), I could imagine doing so and extracting some pleasure from doing so. In fact, I could imagine enjoying it more if I did it more because renewed  familiarity would bring about more comfort.

Fortunately, I don't feel drawn to such things anymore and was not tempted on a sensory level. I wasn't tempted on an emotional one either, but I could definitely imagine being so. It's rather like understanding how someone might want to go bungie jumping for the thrill and sense of floating free or bouncing, but never wanting to do so myself.

Perhaps mindful eating practices broke me of the joy of compulsive eating, or perhaps practicing calorie counting and portion control did it. Maybe it is just a habit I got out of and don't feel compelled to get back into. I was going to say at this point that I'm not emotionally different than I was a little over a year ago, but that's not actually true. The stress and environment I live in is the same, but the way in which I use (or abuse) food has changed. It's not something I turn to for comfort, though I can still use it for pleasure. I can remember wanting to and being able to gain comfort from compulsive eating, and I hope not to forget that so I can maintain empathy for others.

I think that understanding that we approach the food we use for compulsive eating as opposed to the food we actually enjoy differently is of some value. Perhaps knowing the difference will allow us to try to focus on those specific foods or the manner in which we eat those foods which provide comfort and how we deal with them. It can create awareness which can lead to altering our relationship with such foods, and hopefully end compulsive eating.


Lindsay Thurman said...

I'm curious to know if your husband's diet is radically different from your own and if that has made your journey more difficult? My husband and I are in this thing together and I find so much comfort in that...

screaming fatgirl said...

Hi, Lindsay, and thank you for commenting!

My husband and I are not the same, but it isn't really a problem for the most part. He has lost some weight (22 lbs.)because his fasting blood sugar was 120 at a recent doctor's visit. After losing weight and modifying his diet, he dropped down to 97. He is continuing to follow the same modifications and will probably continue to lose weight, but his loss is more parallel to mine rather than "along with."

Mainly, he has modified his breakfast and reduced portions overall, particularly of carbs like rice, bread, pasta and potatoes. On my recommendation, he also does not eat sweets or carbs unless he also has protein. He gave up sweets entirely for two and a half months when he was seriously reducing his weight. Now that his numbers are better, he is following my lead with eating only very small amounts of sweets - about 100 calories per day tops, and only once per day (and w/protein).

My husband is in good health and very fit. He swims 4-5 days per week. He rarely has health issues (and the initial blood sugar results may have been tainted as I don't think he fasted long enough), but he is "overweight" by most charts, so he's taking a sensible approach to his diet now.

We diverge a lot from there. He eats red meat and I don't. The range of vegetables and fruit that he is willing to eat is much smaller than mine. He also will not eat the leanest cuts of meat (like white meat chicken). Though he will eat chicken if that's what I make, he prefers dark meat.

More often than not, I prepare separate meals for us due to both timing (he works very late and many more hours than me) and dietary tolerances on his part. It's not really a problem. There are things that I eat that he won't, like rice crackers, and things that he eats that I won't, like potato chips. It's not so much about diet as I'll eat anything I want in small portions, but just preferences.

We just enjoy different things and when we're both trying to lose weight and be more healthy, we want to spend those precious discretionary calories on only the things we enjoy the most.

One thing I can say is that he now eats more of the same types of things a I do for breakfast. He prefers a "full breakfast" (egg, toast, and bacon), but when he's short on time, he'll eat baked oatmeal bars or whole wheat sugar-free muffins or quick breads that I eat. Before, he would eat pastries or donuts.

Fortunately for both of us, neither of us is really "tempted" by the others "treats". He can occasionally eat butterscotch bombs (from See's Candies) and it doesn't even raise an eyebrow from me. I can eat a cookie and it doesn't make his mouth water. Having heavily caloric treats around or feeling temptation is really not a problem, so whether he's in it with me or not from that angle is irrelevant.

Frankly, our freezer has had about 3 lbs. of See's candy in it for nearly a year now and it really isn't drawing either of us (and it's GOOD candy). There are also frozen peanut butter cups in there which we both love, but strangely do not feel tempted by. I think it's all about the way in which I've set up the way I eat (and my husband is following the same general guidelines now). I don't feel tempted because I can eat whatever I want, just not in large quantities. No deprivation means no longing, perhaps.

I know a lot of women have problems if their husbands have junk around, but it really isn't an issue for us. My husband has been very supportive in every way that I need (emotional, physical, etc.). I've just never needed the sort of support which requires him to eat differently or keep treats out of my way. If I had needed that, he would have been the first one to throw everything out without a second thought and without complaint. And if he had needed that I would have done the same. But it just didn't work out that way.